Faced in the 1960s with a rash of hijackings in which an errant shot from an armed sky marshal could bring down the plane, US authorities were searching for a weapon to subdue an attacker without killing him. Their need was met by Jack Cover, inventor of the Taser stun gun, which is now used by more than 13,000 law enforcement agencies – not to mention 180,000 private citizens around the world.
Theinspiration came to Cover, then a scientist working on NASA’s Apollo moonlanding project, when he read in a newspaper about a man who had been immobilised, but who had survived, after touching a fallen power line. Why not then a weapon that fired small bursts of electricity, not bullets, and that immobilised but did not kill?
Working in his garage, Cover came up with a flashlight-like device that shot darts attached to an insulated wire up to a range of 15 feet. The charge they delivered, in a brief jolt of up to 50,000 volts, incapacitated its victim by causing uncontrollable muscle spasms.
Cover named his invention from a story by the science-fiction writer Victor Appleton that he had loved as a child, called “Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle”, about a boy who invented a rifle that fired bolts of electricity. The acronym TSER however was too much of a mouthful; so Cover added an “a” and the Taser was born.
In fact, the Taser was not initially an overwhelming success, despite meeting intended specifications. Because the darts were fired by a gunpowder charge, the device was technically a firearm. Police forces were therefore wary, while sales to the public were out of the question. The Los Angeles Police Department rejected the Taser twice during the 1970s; in 1980, however, it changed course after its officers shot and killed a woman in a dispute over an unpaid gas bill.
ANew Yorker by birth, Cover grew up in Chicago, where his father taught economics. He took a doctorate in physics at the University of Chicago, studying under such luminaries as Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller, two of the leading nuclear scientists of the age. Even then Cover was a prolific inventor, experimenting with devices like voice-activated switches and an electric toothbrush while he was still at university. He built a professional career at North American Aviation, a major contractor for NASA, where he worked as the company’s lead researcher on the Apollo programme.
His name, however, will be forever linked with the Taser – today almost as controversial as it is widespread.
In 1993, the device vastly increased its market when Cover produced a version in which the dart was fired by compressed air instead of gunpowder, meaning it could be sold not only to law enforcement, but to the general public as well. But as its use spread, so did complaints that the stun gun was far more dangerous than its proponents maintained.
Taser International, the manufacturer of the device, insists that it is entirely safe, while police and prison officials across the US say that the Taser has sharply reduced instances of deadly force, especially when taking violent people into custody.
But a steady succession of fatal and well-publicised incidents have fuelled charges by civil rights groups that it is unsafe, especially if used against people who were agitated, using drugs or who had some previous heart condition.
According to Amnesty International, at least 334 people have died since 2001 after being stunned with a Taser. Like the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty wants Tasers to be classified as lethal weapons, and sales barred to private individuals.
Cover himself, though, had no doubts about the merits of his invention.
As his widow Ginny told the New York Times, “he used to say that he saved 100,000 lives.”
John Higson “Jack” Cover, physicist and inventor: born New York 6 April 1920; married three times (one son, three daughters); died Mission Viejo, California 7 February 2009.