Edison and Topsy (2006)

acrylic on canvas, 600mm x 600mm

Thomas Edison is often hailed as the great American Inventor, resonsible for such innovations as the phonograph and the lightbulb (which of course, he didn’t actually invent).

The truth however, is that he was never much of an innovator, his method was to employ hundreds of minions to ‘improve’ on existing designs, and utilise his capitalistic savvy to secure lucrative patent rights, frequently at the expense of the genuine innovators.

My previous painting of Tesla makes mention of his fractious relationship with Edison, and this painting touches on one rather unpleasant result of their feud. Edison believed his direct current system should be the dominant means of distributing electricity to the home, whereas Tesla favoured high-voltage alternating current. While good sense finally prevailed, and we all now enjoy the benefits of AC in our homes, Edison spent much of his own energy trying to dismiss his rival’s system as ‘dangerous’. It was such fervour which resulted in Edison inventing the electric chair as a means of capital punishment, to demonstrate the dangers of high-voltages. He also made public demonstrations of its lethal power by travelling the country electricuting animals.

Most notably he was responsible for the execution of Topsy the elephant by firing 6,600 volts through the poor creature’s body, after the animal was deemed a danger to human life after killing an abusive trainer.

Of course, Edison filmed to scene for posterity. watch it on YouTube.

4 thoughts on “Edison and Topsy (2006)”

  1. The most amazing thing is that someone saw that video and thought *there’s a good method with which to replace hanging*.
    Although hanging Topsy wouldn’t have been any less horrible to watch.
    As he should, Topsy dominates the painting; a martyr to the industrialised cause. As convenient as the incandescent bulb now is (terrible energy efficiency notwithstanding), no end justifies the means…
    I’m going to buy a couple of low-energy flourescents in protest.
    Great painting. 🙂

  2. I believe the competition between Edison and Tesla (DC/AC) reached a peak with Edison’s public displays. He even ran electricity through his own body to light a bulb, demonstrating the safety of DC. Not to be outdone, Tesla ran his own stage show, and strapped himself down while an assistant ran AC electricity through his body, firing up a wall of light.
    Tesla was a visionary, and the original ‘mad inventor’. Edison was an experimentalist – he once developed a solvent for rubber by dropping it into every substance he could think of.
    I like the way the elephant seems to bear down on Edison. The image feels heavy, and joyless. It’s how I picture the man.

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