In the 1960s, Jack Cover was part of a large team of aerospace scientists working on the Apollo moon-landing project for NASA. By chance he read a newspaper story about a man who touched a fallen electrical power line and had been temporarily paralyzed but not killed. This incident became Cover’s inspiration for a nonlethal weapon that would fire short, intense bursts of electricity.
Cover’s idea came at a moment when law enforcement officials in the United States were looking for a weapon that would immobilize a suspect without causing serious injury or death. As a child, one of Cover’s favorite stories had been “Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle,” about an ingenious boy who invented a rifle that shot bolts of electricity. As a tribute to the story, Cover planned to name his invention the TSER. It was an awkward name, so he added an “a”; ever since, Cover’s stun gun has been known as the Taser.
Cover’s first stun gun looked like a flashlight. It used a gunpowder charge to shoot darts attached to an insulated wire that delivered a shock of 50,000 volts, enough to incapacitate a suspect. The gunpowder charge convinced most police departments that the taser was just another type of pistol, and just as dangerous. Cover found almost no market for his stun gun until 1993 when he developed a model that used compressed air as its firing mechanism.
Now that the taser was no longer viewed as a gun, it found a large market among police officers, prison guards and military personnel in 45 countries, as well as among millions of ordinary civilians who carried stun guns for personal protection. Typically the civilian models are camouflaged to resemble an umbrella, a flashlight or even a cellphone.
While police and correctional officers insist that the stun gun is a useful tool that enables them to subdue violent individuals safely, some civil rights organizations insist that the taser is dangerous. Amnesty International reports that since 2001, tasers have been responsible for the deaths of 334 individuals. Civil rights advocates demand that the stun gun should be classified as a lethal weapon and its sales restricted to the police and the military.
The Inventor’s Response
Jack Cover always believed his invention gave the police a safe method of subduing an attacker without resorting to deadly force. Speaking to The New York Times after her husband’s death in February 2009, Ginny Cover recalled, “He used to say that he saved 100,000 lives.”