This week we’re coming back to the infamous war of the currents, which took over scientific and public debate in the 1880s and 90s. One of the things that happened during that time was “the wire panic” spread by the New York press with such headlines as “Death by Wire” and peculiar cartoons. The articles were aimed at George Westinghouse’s company, the use of high-voltage alternating current (AC), and the electrical wires taking over the city like a giant spider’s web. As we know, the war against Westinghouse and AC was mainly fueled by his rival, Thomas Edison, whose official aim was to protect the people’s lives, but in reality also to promote his electrical system and ruin competition.
Edison wasn’t completely wrong in his efforts though; the AC system at the time lacked appropriate regulations and led to several deadly incidents. The most known involved John Feeks, a Western Union lineman working in Manhattan. On October 11, 1889, Feeks died seconds after he touched a telegraph line that had been shorted with a high-voltage AC line. And even though the 19th century was an extremely dangerous time for industry workers (e.g., 1 out of 100 railroad brakemen died annually in the US), that accident was witnessed by hundreds of mortified people, who watched Fleek’s body smoldering for almost an hour. The incident was highly reported by the press, intensifying the public’s fear of the mysterious, inherently dangerous nature of electricity and electrical wires. A heated debate over the regulation of the electric industry ensued, along with several weeks of complete darkness in New York as the overhead AC lines were cut down.
Shout-out to Andrzej, who reprises his role as a Victorian hatter in our anti-wire poster inspired by a 1889 cartoon entitled “The Unrestrained Demon.”