Edison’s Elephant

In 1903 Thomas Edison electrocuted an elephant.  On purpose.

Famous for lightbulbs and telegraphs and motion pictures, Edison was a lifelong inventor who filed his last patent application (he held over 1,000 US patents) at the age of 84, only ten months before his death.

But he wasn’t just an inventor.  Edison also owned the Edison Illuminating Company, the forerunner of General Electric.  In his business dealings Edison continually battled with another inventor, Nikola Tesla, over which form of electricity was best suited to residential distribution.  Edison championed Direct Current (DC) electricity and Tesla thought Alternating Current (AC) was the better option.

Which brings us to Topsy The Elephant.

Topsy was an Asian elephant brought to the U.S. after being captured in the wild at a very young age.  Topsy killed at least one man, a circus spectator, and allegedly killed two more circus workers in Texas while on tour near Waco.

So in 1903 the decision was made to euthanize Topsy.  Topsy was fed drugged carrots, fitted with copper boots….how, by the way, do you go about fitting copper boots on a rogue, man-killing elephant?…..and led onto a metal platform.  That metal platform was (you guessed it) hooked up to AC electricity.  And it worked.

How do we know exactly what happened to Topsy that day?  Because it was filmed by Edison’s people (on the camera he invented) and subsequently published.  The details of Edison’s involvement in Topsy’s death are a bit sketchy, but Edison had already established a reputation for trying to prove his point about the dangers of AC electricity by shocking the bejeebers out of unsuspecting animals.

And let’s face it, if you make a habit of electrocuting animals…at some point you’re gonna want to fry an elephant.

Which brings us to a lesson I think we can all learn from.  You see, Edison was a living legend whose telegraph played a major role in helping America to fulfill its manifest destiny.  But rather than being content with his success, he couldn’t help but win an argument at all cost.  And it has forever tainted his legacy.

We do the same thing today.  I’d like to say that I’ve never insisted on having the last word in an argument, or stared infuriatingly into the ether when I couldn’t speak, or used hurtful words to shut someone else up.  But I can’t.  I’ve taken the same road Edison did and tried to prove my point at all cost.

Perhaps worst of all I know I’ve used God’s word to beat people down with arguments that, although true, were misused.  Rather that using the Bible to spread the gospel and bring souls to Christ I’ve used it to make a point.  The point that I’m right and you’re wrong.

What we need to remember is that the end goal in life is not just winning the argument.  Some points need to be made, some hills are worth dying on.  But let’s die on those hills and make those points and win those arguments with dignity.

Because in 100 years nobody will remember who won the argument.  But they’ll sure enough remember if we electrocuted any elephants along the way.