Voltage of an Electric Chair

The Physics Factbook
Edited by Glenn Elert -- Written by his students
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Bibliographic Entry Result
(w/surrounding text)
"Electrocution." Funk & Wagnell's New Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. USA: Funk & Wagnell, 1975: 169. "about 2000 volts" 2000 V
"Electrocution." Academic American Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Grolier, 1993: 113. "5 amperes of current at 2000 volts" 2000 V
US Physicians For Human Rights. Breach Of Trust. US Physicians For Human Rights, 1994: 8. "1400 volts for 17 seconds was insufficient" 1400 V
Baumgart, R. A. & McCuen, Gary E. Reviving the Death Penalty. Madison, WI: Gary McCuen, 1985: 22. "voltages between 500 and 2000 volts are applied for half a minute" 500–2000 V

We live in a time where people are commonly grouped, and therefore judged, according to their strong, somewhat black or white beliefs. Whether it be a decision not to eat meat or a true agreement with our present government leaders, there is not one issue on which we can all agree. And so it is with this thought in mind that I approach this topic with only the utmost care. I am not stating my personal opinion, nor am I justifying the beliefs of you, the reader.

Since its first use in 1890, the electric chair has been the most often used means of capital punishment. It's seemingly painless, and virtually instantaneous deaths have been considered the most humane method of killing a convicted murderer, as compared to lethal injection, the gas chamber, a firing squad or death by hanging.

In 1890 William Kemmler was the first person to be electrocuted. One can only imagine, not only Kemmler's apprehension, but that of the witnesses and the operators, who at that time were unsure of the results. "An eyewitness account described how 1400 volts [applied] for 17 seconds was insufficient, and how Kemmler began to recover a minute later."Finally, the current was resumed for two and a half minutes more! The odor of burnt flesh was well noticed in the confined area. Today US prisons use an alternating current of 2000 volts. Most of us, at one time or another, have seen an electric chair. My experience has been from a wide variety of television and movie plots. The criminal is strapped to the chair and electrodes are placed on the scalp and a calf of one leg. A salt solution is used to moisten the electrodes for correct contact.

However foolproof the electric chair may appear, it has still had a few quirks. As recently as 1982, John Louis Evans was shocked for 30 seconds before the electrode on his leg broke. A minute later smoke was seen coming from his mouth and his left leg. It wasn't until a third dose, and ten minutes later, that he was pronounced dead. At the end of the electrocution, the temperature of the electrode was that of a hot bath, around 50 °C, leading the operators to believe that the voltage was too low for this particular individual. From experience, doctors believe that certain people have a better tolerance to high voltage than others.

In closing, I offer two thoughts. Instead of just focusing on how something can be done, maybe we should stop and think about if it should be done at all. Or perhaps we should consider the last few minutes of the victims' lives instead of trying to make the criminal's death as humane as possible.

Nancy Ryan -- 1996

Bibliographic Entry Result
(w/surrounding text)
Trombley, Stephen. Execution Protocol: Inside America's Capital Punishment Industry. New York: Anchor, 1993. "Carolina planned to give 2000 V for five seconds followed by an eight second jolt of 1000 V, followed by jolt of 250 V" 2000 V
1000 V
250 V
Sandholzer, Kuno. Execution of John Mills. Amnesty International. 8 December 1996. "Speaking in Arabic, Mills made a final statement before an anonymous citizen flipped the switch that sent 2000 volts of electricity through his body. He said 'I bear witness that there is no God but Allah and I bear witness that the prophet Mohammed is the messenger of God.'" 2000 V
Sandholzer, Kuno. Execution of Harold McQueen. Amnesty International. 2 July 1997. "Harold McQueen was strapped into the 86-year-old electric chair at the fortress-like Kentucky State Penitentiary and given a 2,100-volt charge [sic] at 12:07 a.m. CDT. Prison officials said he clenched his fist and was pronounced dead eight minutes later." 2100 V
Sandholzer, Kuno. Execution of Kenneth Samuel Stewart Jr. Amnesty International. 25 September 1998. "The electric cycle, 1,825 volts at approximately 7.5 amps for 30 seconds, then 240 volts at approximately 1.5 amps for 60 seconds … a 5 second pause intervenes, and the cycle is repeated, was designed to render the condemned brain dead within the first few moments. The function of the remainder of the cycle is to stop the body's organs so that a physician can certify that death has occurred …." 1825 V
240 V
Clark, Lesley. "Florida execution of 350-pound inmate turns bloody." Miami Herald. 9 July 1999. "Blood poured from the chest and mouth of convicted killer Allen Lee Davis as he was electrocuted early Thursday in Florida's first use of its new electric chair. Davis let out two muffled screams from behind a chin mask after four guards strapped him into the electric chair. As the 2,300 volts of electricity began to surge through the metal cap on his head, Davis jerked back against the oak chair, his fists clenched." 2300 V
"Florida Execution Turns Bloody." Ottawa Sun. 9 July 1999. "Blood appeared to pour from the mouth and ooze from the chest of Allen Lee 'Tiny' Davis as he was hit with 2,300 volts at 7:10 a.m. But the governor's office said it was simply a nosebleed." 2300 V
Brandon, Craig. Frequently Asked Questions about the Electric Chair. Electric Chair History. "The first execution used a voltage of about 1,700, although it was not officially recorded. The voltage has tended to increase over time and in the modern era the voltage is usually 2,000 to 2,200 volts at seven to twelve amps." 1700 V
2000–2200 V

Editor's Supplement -- 1999, 2001

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