Puneet Varma (Editor)


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Electrocution is death caused by electric shock, electric current passing through the body. The word is derived from "electro" and "execution", but it is also used for accidental death. The word is also used to describe non-fatal injuries due to electricity. The term "electrocution," was coined in 1889 by US newspapers just before the first use of the electric chair in 1890, originally referred only to electrical execution (from which it is a portmanteau word), and not to accidental or suicidal electrical deaths. However, since no English word was available for non-judicial deaths due to electric shock, the word "electrocution" eventually took over as a description of all circumstances of electrical death from the new commercial electricity.



The idea of execution by electricity, electrocution, grew out of the introduction of the electric chair in the late 1890s as an official method of capital punishment in the United States state of New York, thought to be a more humane alternative to hanging. People had been dying (accidentally) from electric shock in the decade before the introduction of the electric chair with the first recorded accidental death by electricity (besides lightning strikes) occurring in 1879 when a stage carpenter in Lyon, France touched a 250-volt wire. The spread of arc light based street lighting systems led to many people dying from coming in contact with the high-voltage lines being used, which seemed to kill instantaneously without leaving a mark on the victim. After an 1881 death, a Buffalo, New York dentist Alfred P. Southwick sought to develop this phenomenon into a way to execute condemned criminals with him basing his device on form he knew well, a dental chair. The next 9 years saw promotion by Southwick, the New York state Gerry commission (which included Southwick) recommending execution by electricity, a June 4, 1888 law making it the state form of execution on January 2, 1889, and a further state committee of doctors and lawyers to finalize the details of the method used. The adoption of the electric chair became mixed up in the "war of currents" between Thomas Edison's direct current system and industrialist George Westinghouse's alternating current system in 1889 when noted anti-AC activist Harold P. Brown became a consultant to the committee. Brown pushed, with the assistance and sometimes collusion of Edison Electric and Westinghouse's chief AC rival, the Thomson-Houston Electric Company, for the successful adoption of alternating current to power the chair, an attempt to portray AC as a public menace and the "executioners current".

In May 1889 when New York had its first criminal sentenced to be executed in the electric chair, a street merchant named William Kemmler, there were many suggestions in newspapers as to what to call the new form of execution. The term "Westinghoused" was put forward as well as "Gerrycide" (after death penalty commission head Elbridge Thomas Gerry), and "Browned". Thomas Edison put forward the words dynamort, ampermort and electromort. Some time during that summer popular newspapers started using a word of unknown origin, "electrocution", to describe the new form of capital punishment. New York Times hated the word, describing it as being pushed forward by "pretentious ignoramuses".

Medical aspects

The health hazard of an electric current flowing through the body depends on the amount of current and the length of time for which it flows, not merely on the voltage. However, a high voltage is required to produce a high current through the body. The severity of a shock also depends on whether the path of the current includes a vital organ. Death can occur from any shock that carries enough sustained current to stop the heart. Low currents (70–700 mA) usually trigger fibrillation in the heart, which is reversible via defibrillator but is nearly always fatal without help. Currents as low as 30 mA AC or 300-500 mA DC applied to the body surface can cause fibrillation. Large currents (> 1 A) cause permanent damage via burns and cellular damage. The voltage necessary to create current of a given level through the body varies widely with the resistance of the skin; wet or sweaty skin or broken skin can allow a larger current to flow. Whether an electric current is fatal is also dependent on the path it takes through the body, which depends in turn on the points at which the current enters and leaves the body. The current path must usually include either the heart or the brain to be fatal.


Electrocution Wikipedia