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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. [1] [2]

Death permanent cessation of vital functions

Death is the permanent cessation of all biological functions that sustain a living organism. Phenomena which commonly bring about death include aging, predation, malnutrition, disease, suicide, homicide, starvation, dehydration, and accidents or major trauma resulting in terminal injury. In most cases, bodies of living organisms begin to decompose shortly after death.

Electrical injury physiological reaction or injury caused by electric current (see Q3587621 for death by electrocution)

Electrical injury is a physiological reaction caused by electric current passing through the (human) body. Electric shock occurs upon contact of a (human) body part with any source of electricity that causes a sufficient magnitude of current to pass through the victim's flesh, viscera or hair. Physical contact with energized wiring or devices is the most common cause of an electric shock. In cases of exposure to high voltages, such as on a power transmission tower, physical contact with energized wiring or objects may not be necessary to cause electric shock, as the voltage may be sufficient to "jump" the air gap between the electrical device and the victim.


The term "electrocution" was coined in 1889 in the US just before the first use of the electric chair and originally referred only to electrical execution 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.

Electric chair Execution method

Execution by electrocution, performed using an electric chair, is a method of execution originating in the United States in which the condemned person is strapped to a specially built wooden chair and electrocuted through electrodes fastened on the head and leg. This execution method, conceived in 1881 by a Buffalo, New York, dentist named Alfred P. Southwick, was developed throughout the 1880s as a "humane alternative" to hanging, and first used in 1890. This execution method has been used in the United States and, for a period of several decades, in the Philippines. While death was originally theorized to result from damage to the brain, it was eventually shown in 1899 that it primarily results from ventricular fibrillation and eventual cardiac arrest.


In the Netherlands in 1746 Pieter van Musschenbroek's lab assistant, Andreas Cuneus, received an extreme shock while working with a leyden jar, the first recorded injury from man-made electricity. [3] [4] By the mid-19th century high-voltage electrical systems came into use to power arc lighting for theatrical stage lighting and lighthouses leading to the first recorded accidental death in 1879 when a stage carpenter in Lyon, France touched a 250-volt wire. [5]

Pieter van Musschenbroek scientist

Pieter van Musschenbroek was a Dutch scientist. He was a professor in Duisburg, Utrecht, and Leiden, where he held positions in mathematics, philosophy, medicine, and astronomy. He is credited with the invention of the first capacitor in 1746: the Leyden jar. He performed pioneering work on the buckling of compressed struts. Musschenbroek was also one of the first scientists (1729) to provide detailed descriptions of testing machines for tension, compression, and flexure testing. An early example of a problem in dynamic plasticity was described in the 1739 paper.

Leyden jar device that "stores" static electricity

A Leyden jar is an antique electrical component which stores a high-voltage electric charge between electrical conductors on the inside and outside of a glass jar. It typically consists of a glass jar with metal foil cemented to the inside and the outside surfaces, and a metal terminal projecting vertically through the jar lid to make contact with the inner foil. It was the original form of the capacitor.

Arc lamp a light created by electrical breakdown of gas

An arc lamp or arc light is a lamp that produces light by an electric arc. The carbon arc light, which consists of an arc between carbon electrodes in air, invented by Humphry Davy in the first decade of the 1800s, was the first practical electric light. It was widely used starting in the 1870s for street and large building lighting until it was superseded by the incandescent light in the early 20th century. It continued in use in more specialized applications where a high intensity point light source was needed, such as searchlights and movie projectors until after World War II. The carbon arc lamp is now obsolete for most of these purposes, but it is still used as a source of high intensity ultraviolet light.

The spread of arc light-based street lighting systems (which at the time ran at a voltages above 3,000 volts) after 1880 led to many people dying from coming in contact with these high-voltage lines, a strange new phenomenon which seemed to kill instantaneously without leaving a mark on the victim. [6] [7] This would lead to execution by electricity in the electric chair in the late 1890s as an official method of capital punishment in the U.S. state of New York, thought to be a more humane alternative to hanging. After an 1881 death in Buffalo, New York caused by a high voltage arc lighting system, a local dentist named 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. [8]

Capital punishment, also known as the death penalty, is a government-sanctioned practice whereby a person is killed by the state as a punishment for a crime. The sentence that someone be punished in such a manner is referred to as a death sentence, whereas the act of carrying out the sentence is known as an execution. Crimes that are punishable by death are known as capital crimes or capital offences, and they commonly include offences such as murder, mass murder, terrorism, treason, espionage, offenses against the State, such as attempting to overthrow government, piracy, drug trafficking, war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, but may include a wide range of offences depending on a country. Etymologically, the term capital in this context alluded to execution by beheading.

U.S. state constituent political entity of the United States

In the United States, a state is a constituent political entity, of which there are currently 50. Bound together in a political union, each state holds governmental jurisdiction over a separate and defined geographic territory and shares its sovereignty with the federal government. Due to this shared sovereignty, Americans are citizens both of the federal republic and of the state in which they reside. State citizenship and residency are flexible, and no government approval is required to move between states, except for persons restricted by certain types of court orders. Four states use the term commonwealth rather than state in their full official names.

New York (state) State of the United States of America

New York is a state in the Northeastern United States. New York was one of the original thirteen colonies that formed the United States. With an estimated 19.54 million residents in 2018, it is the fourth most populous state. In order to distinguish the state from the city with the same name, it is sometimes referred to as New York State.

The next nine 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. [9]

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". [10]

Thomas Edison American inventor and businessman

Thomas Alva Edison was an American inventor and businessman, who has been described as America's greatest inventor. He is credited with developing many devices in fields such as electric power generation, mass communication, sound recording, and motion pictures. These inventions, which include the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and the long-lasting, practical electric light bulb, had a widespread impact on the modern industrialized world. He was one of the first inventors to apply the principles of mass production and teamwork to the process of invention, working with many researchers and employees. He is often credited with establishing the first industrial research laboratory.

Direct current Unidirectional flow of electric charge

Direct current (DC) is the unidirectional flow of electric charge. A battery is a good example of a DC power supply. Direct current may flow in a conductor such as a wire, but can also flow through semiconductors, insulators, or even through a vacuum as in electron or ion beams. The electric current flows in a constant direction, distinguishing it from alternating current (AC). A term formerly used for this type of current was galvanic current.

George Westinghouse American businessman

George Westinghouse Jr. was an American entrepreneur and engineer based in Pennsylvania who invented the railway air brake and was a pioneer of the electrical industry, gaining his first patent at the age of 19. Westinghouse saw the potential in alternating current as an electricity distribution system in the early 1880s and put all his resources into developing and marketing it, a move that put his business in direct competition with the Edison direct current system. In 1911 Westinghouse received the AIEE's Edison Medal "For meritorious achievement in connection with the development of the alternating current system."


In May 1889 the state of New York sentenced its first criminal, a street merchant named William Kemmler, to be executed in their new form of capital punishment. Tabloid newspapers, trying to describe this new form of electrical execution, started settling on "electrocution," a portmanteau word derived from "electro" and "execution". [11] It was not the only choice of word people were considering. The New York Times editorial column noted words such as "Westinghoused" (after the Westinghouse Electric alternating current equipment that was to be used), "Gerrycide" (after Elbridge Gerry who headed New York death penalty commission that suggested adopting the electric chair), and "Browned" (after anti-AC activist Harold P. Brown). [12] Thomas Edison preferred the words dynamort, ampermort and electromort. [12] The New York Times hated the word electrocution, describing it as being pushed forward by "pretentious ignoramuses". [11]

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. This is due to the relatively high resistance of skin when dry, requiring a high voltage to pass through. [13] 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.

See also

Related Research Articles

Alternating current electric voltage which periodically reverses direction; form in which electric power is delivered to businesses and residences; form of electrical energy that consumers typically use when they plug electric appliances into a wall socket

Alternating current (AC) is an electric current which periodically reverses direction, in contrast to direct current (DC) which flows only in one direction. Alternating current is the form in which electric power is delivered to businesses and residences, and it is the form of electrical energy that consumers typically use when they plug kitchen appliances, televisions, fans and electric lamps into a wall socket. A common source of DC power is a battery cell in a flashlight. The abbreviations AC and DC are often used to mean simply alternating and direct, as when they modify current or voltage.

Electric power distribution Final stage of electricity delivery to individual consumers in a power grid

Electric power distribution is the final stage in the delivery of electric power; it carries electricity from the transmission system to individual consumers. Distribution substations connect to the transmission system and lower the transmission voltage to medium voltage ranging between 2 kV and 35 kV with the use of transformers. Primary distribution lines carry this medium voltage power to distribution transformers located near the customer's premises. Distribution transformers again lower the voltage to the utilization voltage used by lighting, industrial equipment or household appliances. Often several customers are supplied from one transformer through secondary distribution lines. Commercial and residential customers are connected to the secondary distribution lines through service drops. Customers demanding a much larger amount of power may be connected directly to the primary distribution level or the subtransmission level.

Electric power industry industry that provides the production and delivery of electric energy

The electric power industry covers the generation, transmission, distribution and sale of electric power to the general public and industry. The commercial distribution of electric power started in 1882 when electricity was produced for electric lighting. In the 1880s and 1890s, growing economic and safety concerns lead to the regulation of the industry. What was once an expensive novelty limited to the most densely populated areas, reliable and economical electric power has become an essential aspect for normal operation of all elements of developed economies.

Harold P. Brown American inventor

Harold Pitney Brown was an American electrical engineer and inventor known for his activism in the late 1880s against the use of alternating current for electric lighting in New York City and around the country.

William Kemmler American murderer

William Francis Kemmler of Buffalo, New York, a peddler and known alcoholic, was convicted of murdering Matilda "Tillie" Ziegler, his common-law wife. He would become the first person in the world to be legally executed using an electric chair. In spite of a successful prior test with a horse, the process did not go smoothly.

Topsy (elephant) female Asian elephant

Topsy was a female Asian elephant put to death at a Coney Island, New York, amusement park by electrocution in January 1903.

War of the currents an era of clash between use of Alternating and Direct Current for electric power distribution

The war of the currents was a series of events surrounding the introduction of competing electric power transmission systems in the late 1880s and early 1890s. It grew out of two lighting systems developed in the late 1870s and early 1880s; arc lamp street lighting running on high voltage alternating current (AC), and large scale low voltage direct current (DC) indoor incandescent lighting being marketed by Thomas Edison's company. In 1886, the Edison system was faced with new competition, an alternating current system developed by George Westinghouse's company that used transformers to step down from a high voltage so AC could be used for indoor lighting. Using high voltage allowed an AC system to transmit power over much longer distances from more efficient large central generating stations. As the use of AC spread rapidly, the Edison Electric Light Company claimed in early 1888 that high voltages used in an alternating current system were hazardous, and that the design was inferior to, and infringed on the patents behind, their direct current system.

Arthur E. Kennelly American electrical engineer

Arthur Edwin Kennelly, was an Irish-American electrical engineer.

Power engineering subfield of electrical engineering, which deals with power generation, conversion, storage, transport and forwarding in electrical networks and use of electrical energy

Power engineering, also called power systems engineering, is a subfield of electrical engineering that deals with the generation, transmission, distribution and utilization of electric power, and the electrical apparatus connected to such systems. Although much of the field is concerned with the problems of three-phase AC power – the standard for large-scale power transmission and distribution across the modern world – a significant fraction of the field is concerned with the conversion between AC and DC power and the development of specialized power systems such as those used in aircraft or for electric railway networks. Power engineering draws the majority of its theoretical base from electrical engineering.

Robert Greene Elliott was the New York State Electrician (i.e., executioner) – and for those neighboring states that used the electric chair, including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Massachusetts – during the period 1926–1939.

Alfred P. Southwick (1826–1898), was a steam-boat engineer, dentist and inventor from Buffalo, New York. He is credited with inventing the electric chair as a method of legal execution. He was also a professor at the University of Buffalo school of dental medicine, now known as the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Ames Hydroelectric Generating Plant

The Ames Hydroelectric Generating Plant, constructed in 1890 near Ophir, Colorado, was the world's first commercial system to produce and transmit alternating current (AC) electricity for industrial use and one of the first AC hydro-electric plants ever constructed. It became operational in 1891 and was built by Westinghouse Electric around two of their large alternators. One was set up in the valley as a generator and driven by water. It was connected by a 2.6-mile (4.2 km) transmission line to the second alternator used as a motor up at the Gold King Mine to drive the mining operation. The facility has been changed and upgraded over the years but is still in operation. It is now on the List of IEEE Milestones.

Frederick Peterson American neurologist (1859-1938)

Frederick Peterson was an American neurologist and poet. Peterson was at the forefront of psychoanalysis in the United States, publishing one of the first articles of Freud and Jung's theories of Free Association in 1909.

Macroshock (mak´ro-shok″) is a medical term for the effects of body exposition to electrical current, which can lead to severe injury or death by electrocution. It is used most often in the medical field, but is also commonly used in the fields of electrophysiology and bioengineering. Definitions of the term are inconsistent; there are three most commonly accepted definitions. Depending upon the medical text used, a macroshock is either:

Electrical burn

An electrical burn is a burn that results from electricity passing through the body causing rapid injury. Approximately 1,000 deaths per year due to electrical injuries are reported in the United States, with a mortality rate of 3-5%. Electrical burns differ from thermal or chemical burns in that they cause much more subdermal damage. They can exclusively cause surface damage, but more often tissues deeper underneath the skin have been severely damaged. As a result, electrical burns are difficult to accurately diagnose, and many people underestimate the severity of their burn. In extreme cases, electricity can cause shock to the brain, strain to the heart, and injury to other organs.

George Fell American surgeon and inventor (1849-1918)

George Edward Fell was an American surgeon and inventor. He was an early developer of artificial ventilation and also investigated the physiology of electrocution, a line of research that led to Fell creating the final design for the first electric chair.


  1. "Electrocute" from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of the English Language, 2009
  2. "electrocute". Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2015-08-22.
  3. awesomestories.com, THE LEYDEN JAR
  4. Zongcheng Yang, Chinese Burn Surgery, Springer -, 2015, page 12
  5. Lee, R.C.; Rudall, D. (1992). "Injury Mechanisms And Therapeutic Advances In The Study Of Electrical Shock". Proceedings of the Annual International Conference of the IEEE. 7: 2825–2827. doi:10.1109/IEMBS.1992.5761711.
  6. Randall E. Stross, The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World, Crown/Archetype - 2007, page 171-173
  7. Craig Brandon, The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History pages 14-24
  8. Craig Brandon The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History page 24
  9. Richard Moran, Executioner's Current: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the Invention of the Electric Chair, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group - 2007, pages 102-104
  10. Mark Essig, Edison and the Electric Chair: A Story of Light and Death, Bloomsbury Publishing USA - 2009, pages 152-155
  11. 1 2 Moran (2007), p. xxii.
  12. 1 2 Moran (2007), pp. xxi-xxii.
  13. Fish, Raymond M.; Geddes, Leslie A. (2009-10-12). "Conduction of Electrical Current to and Through the Human Body: A Review". Eplasty. 9. ISSN   1937-5719. PMC   2763825 . PMID   19907637.