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Who invented the electric chair?

It was first used for an execution over a century ago, and is still used in some cases today, but who came up with the idea? Historian Greg Jenner explains more…

Illustration of electric chair
Published: April 1, 2016 at 12:00 pm
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After witnessing a fatal but accidental electrocution in 1881, New York dentist Dr Alfred P Southwick lobbied for electrocution as a humane capital punishment. To that end, he modified a dentist’s chair and began experimenting on animals.


The electric chair’s 1890 debut caused outrage as two shocks were needed to kill murderer William Kemmler, but the idea was soon adopted across many states.

In the course of his work, Southwick sought advice from Thomas Edison, whose electrical company championed Direct Current (DC) [where energy flows constantly in a single direction in the same way as a battery]. Edison secretly arranged for a chair to be built powered by Alternating Current (AC) – championed by his competitor George Westinghouse – to scare people into thinking it was more dangerous. Edison, however, lost the ‘War of the Currents’.

Answered by one of our Q&A experts, historian and author Greg Jenner


This article was taken from the April 2016 issue of BBC History Revealed magazine


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