The electric chair, like so many inventions, started with an accident—an accidental death. We’ve told you a bit about its creation before, describing Alfred Southwick’s quest for a new painless execution method, but to really know how he got the idea, you have to look at the death of George Smith. 

On August 7, 1881, drunken George Smith had an idea. He would enter an electric plant in Brooklyn and hug the generator there. This seemed roughly in line with a fun occupation people had at the time: touching the railing that surrounded the generator. This gave people an arousing hit of juice but never really hurt anyone. 

George grabbing the generator gave him more than just a hit. It electrocuted him, of course. This surprised his friends, as did his total paralysis until engineers turned the generator off. Most surprising of all, he didn’t appear to experience any pain even as the generator killed him. We’re deliberately avoiding phrases here like “burned him to a crisp” because it didn’t even visibly burn him at all.

Now here’s where Alfred Southwick came in. Last time, we described Southwick as an engineer, and that was true. But Southwick was also a dentist, and this turned out to be important. Because while anyone might have figured out how to adapt this newly discovered killing method for formal executions, Southwick had a foundation for the new device: his dentist’s chair.

Yes, the electric chair is based on the dentist’s chair. You’ve always known that the dentist’s chair is a torture implement, and you were right, and not only because dentistry hurts. And yes, getting killed in an electric chair hurts too. While drunken George Smith may have died painlessly and awesomely, as did Southwick’s first experimental subjects (stray dogs), the first execution victim survived the first jolt. He gasped in pain. His body smoked, and witnessed creamed. “It was a great success,” said Southwick. “I am the happiest man in the state today.”

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For more shocking tales, check out:

The Electric Chair Was Supposed To Be A Quick And Easy Way To Go

Thomas Edison Tried to Turn His Competitor's Name into a Synonym for Death

The 6 Crazy Methods Prisoners Used To Escape Execution

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Top image: NearEMPTiness/Wiki Commons, Doug Smith

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