How Did the Taser Get Its Name?

Tasers became less-lethal options for many police departments in the mid-1990s. This brand of electrical weapon shoots small barbed darts designed to puncture the skin, and then delivers an electric jolt intended to disrupt the voluntary control of muscles, a phenomenon called “neuromuscular incapacitation.” These types of weapons were developed for use in situations where firing a traditional firearm would be considered extreme -- in a plane hijacking, for example, or when the main goal is to subdue a dangerous suspect. The concept was first invented in the 1970s by nuclear physicist Jack Cover, and the name is actually an acronym taken from the title of a 1911 novel for young adults entitled Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle.

Technology takes off:

  • The Tom Swift novels were popular in the early 20th century, but are hardly politically correct. In this book, Swift creates an electric rifle, and then takes it on an African elephant hunt. Unsettling references to "savage" natives and the "dark continent" abound.
  • Some reports in recent years have indicated that the Taser is used by police three times more frequently on African-Americans than on white people, raising serious ethical questions about its use. Amnesty International says that 540 Americans died from "non-lethal" tasing from 2001 to 2013.
  • The development of drones has made it possible to tase people from the sky. Police in North Dakota are operating drones equipped with tear gas and Tasers, and a Texas company has created a drone to hover over private property and tase people without any human involvement.
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