06/05/07 - competition and lies

In today's excerpt - gas lights were beginning to be established when several inventors, including Thomas Edison, developed electric lighting as an alternative. In the fierce competitive battle for customers that followed, executives on both sides put forward lies and exaggerations about the dangers of their competitors' product and the safety of their own:

"The president of Edison Electric, Major Sherburne Eaton, [when confronted with the dangers of electrical shock], resorted to what appeared to be the easiest course: emphatic denial of the problem. He explained that he himself had 'taken the full force of the entire current with my naked hands, and have seen hundreds of others do it, both men and women, and always without the slightest shock.' Eaton was publicly expounding upon the impossibility of Edison Electric's current producing a shock at about the same time that Edison was privately telling [his colleagues] that, yes, the company's workers had accidentally spiked one of the electrical tubes in that spot, and the current was not dissipated harmlessly through the earth, as Eaton was telling reporters would be the case even had a rupture occurred.

"The Edison Electric Light Company in 1882 launched a counter-offensive to direct public attention to its most vulnerable competitors: the gas companies. [His electric competitors] The arc light companies could not be attacked without hurting the image of everyone in the electric power business; the lay public could not readily distinguish between direct and alternating current. The threat to public safety posed by gas, however, was easily understood. The Bulletin of the Edison Electric Light Company devoted considerable space to reports of devastation and death caused by gas. A man was found dead in his hotel room—with the gas turned on. Two young girls, found dead in bed—gassed. An explosion blew out heavy plate glass from windows in a downtown office building—again, gas. Standing alone on a room lit with gas was no different from standing 'immured with 23 other persons, all taking oxygen from the atmosphere', according to the author of an article titled, 'How To Escape Nervousness.' After several hours of oxygen deprivation, was it a surprise that 'your nerves should rebel as far as their weak state permits and that your head should ache, your hands tremble, and that your daughter's playing on the piano almost drives you wild?'

"Gaslight customers could appreciate the simple physical fact that an electric light did not affect the quality of the air, nor generate heat in a room. The gas industry, however, slyly instilled fear, uncertainty and doubt among customers who were considering an alternative. The public was warned that the electric light projected a toxic ray that would turn the complexion of survivors green—and swell the death rate. Those claims clashed with positive ones issued by entrepreneurs touting the healthful benefits of electricity. An electric corset, for example, was advertised that would 'cause the wearer to grow plump and to enjoy the very best of health.' "


Randall Stross


The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World


Three Rivers Press


Copyright 2007 by Randall E. Stross


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