Stun guns themselves certainly aren't perfect solutions to the problem of crowd control. But compared to what came before it, the modern stun gun seems downright civil.
One of the first uses of electroshock weapons to (non-lethally) control crowds took place during the 1930s as a substitute for the billy club. But this first iteration of electroshock control was unlike anything you'd see police using today—Inspector Gadget not included.
According to an article form the September 1935 issue of Popular Science Monthly (as found by our own Matt Novak):
A touch with the glove is enough to take all the fight out of the most recalcitrant disturber, since it imparts an electric shock with a kick of 1,500 to 5,000 volts behind it. The paralysing effect, however, is only temporary, and there are no burns or other after-effects.
As far as we can tell, this particular glove was never used in the field, but in terms of electroshock weaponry, officials were just getting started.
As detailed in a recent article by The New York Times, President Johnson put out a call for a nonlethal way of incapacitating a criminal, following the New York race riots of 1964. Literal cattle prods (seen above) had already been in use for a while, but treating human beings in the same way one would farm animals usually doesn't go over well.
One of the first alternatives came in 1965, when a man from Massachusetts filed a patent for what The Times refers to as "a long-range weapon that worked like an electrified supersoaker." In other words, he'd made an electrified water cannon, which is not only dangerous but nearly impossible to control. Other attempts (seen above) proved equally unsuccessful.
"Hundreds and hundreds of different patents were made," [Darius] Rejali, [a professor at Reed College], says, "but it's one thing to have a great idea, and another thing to have a lot of social institutions that will sustain it and carry it forward into society."
Even the Taser, the device Jack Cover patented in 1974, wasn't all that different from the ones that came before: A pair of electrode projectiles, tethered to the gun with wires, delivered a high-voltage, low-amperage pulse of electricity that could subdue a target without killing him.
It wasn't until two brothers came up with a gunpowder-free version of the stun gun in 1993 that it finally caught on. And it still took six more years before the weapon was advanced enough to "drop anyone in demonstration." Entirely civil? Maybe not. But it's still a hell of a lot better than a cattle prod. [The New York Times, PS Mag]