The most electrifying review you'll read all day
A shocking roundup of four current books on power
The availability of cheap electric power changed the world. Electricity determines how we work and where, how we communicate and entertain ourselves, and even how we get our information about one another.
The United States grew up with electricity, and it is no coincidence that Benjamin Franklin, among the Founders of the nation, was a celebrated electrical experimenter. In Bolt of Fate, Tom Tucker traces the connection between Franklin's early investigation of electrical energy and his later roles as diplomat and homespun sage.
The author contends, and it seems likely, that Franklin never actually performed the electric kite experiment that made him famous. If he were dumb enough to stand out in a field flying a kite in a thunderstorm, as the popular image has it, he probably never would have lived long enough to report it. As Franklin described the experiment, the water-sodden kite, weighted down with a heavy brass key, never could have gotten aloft even in a cyclone.
But, as Tucker argues, it doesn't really matter. Everyone thought he had done it, and that was enough to gain renown as the preeminent natural philosopher of the American Colonies. Franklin used this reputation later in France to win support for the dangerous revolutionary experiment under way across the Atlantic. He shrewdly manipulated his own image - literally in the case of the countless ceramic medallions made of his picture - to create a romantic myth that allowed him to bring the French into the Revolutionary War on the American side, with decisive effect.
Another American self-mythologizer, Thomas Edison, is a central figure in Fleet Fire, by L.J. Davis. As Davis relates it, Edison wasn't much of a scientist or a businessman. The Sage of Menlo Park was above all a visionary, however, and through his efforts to develop central generating stations for electrical power, he helped create the technological revolution of the 20th century.
The history of electrical experimentation in America is full of curious characters, from the famous to the obscure. It turns out, for example, that the electric motor was actually invented by Thomas Davenport, a blacksmith from upstate New York. Unfortunately, since there were no electric generators at the time, a motor was not of much use. Those who imagine that scientific knowledge accumulates in a continuous upward progress may be startled to read about the dead ends, wrong turns, and petty jealousies that characterize this story.
Davis is a journalist, not a scientist or a historian, and unfortunately this book contains a number of errors, large and small. Most notable is the persistent misidentification of electricity and magnetism as two separate elemental forces. In fact, since the mid-19th century, most scientists would argue that there is only a single electromagnetic force that appears in one form or the other. Since Davis provides very little in the way of supporting documentation, it's difficult to determine whether the accounts he presents are entirely factual. The author would have been better served by a careful professional scrutiny of this material.
A more carefully documented perspective on America's peculiar relationship with electricity can be found in The Body Electric. At a time when people drive immense SUVs a few blocks to the gym to jog on a mechanical treadmill, it's appropriate to ask how machines became so integral to our concept of fitness. Carolyn Thomas de la Pena, a professor of American studies at the University of California, Davis, considers the process by which Americans learned to rely on machines for exercise and sexual revitalization. The book sometimes reads like a dissertation, but for the most part it's an irresistible account of fads and fascinating foibles, including electric belts and radioactive tonics.
By the 1850s, Americans in general were aware of the power of machinery to transform their lives, and were both fearful of and excited by new technology. Using machines to reshape the body or electricity and radiation to infuse it with energy was a logical if somewhat misguided response. In view of the subsequent experience of the 20th century, it seems astonishing that patent medicines containing radioactive material should have been fashionable, but a product called Radithor was apparently extremely popular, at least until some horrendous and widely reported deaths from radium poisoning.
The politics of electricity is the subject of Power Play, by Australian sociologist Sharon Beder. She describes what she calls the "Great Electric Confidence Trick": how privately owned electric utilities make use of our dependence on electrical power to reap enormous profits with little regard for the consequences. Her story of how Enron first persuaded the state of California - through a massive advertising and PR campaign - to deregulate electricity, and then manipulated the market to its advantage, is well argued and convincing. She contends that deregulation and privatization in the United States, Europe, Australia, and many smaller nations have resulted in higher costs, worse service, and environmental and social damage.
Of course, for a confidence trick to work, victims must be persuaded that they can get something for nothing. The incredible impact of electricity on modern life makes it seem a genie that can grant our every wish. But as these books make clear, technology can be a positive force or a horribly destructive one. Along with the ancient Trojans, we might do well to be wary of those who bring attractive gifts.
• Frederick Pratter is a freelance writer in eastern Oregon.