Before electricity became the driving force of civilization, the public had to come to terms with this new power. Here’s the story behind it.
Simon (English/Skidmore Coll.; Genuine Reality: A Life of Henry James, 1998, etc.) draws on 19th-century newspapers, popular fiction, and other nontechnical sources to examine how electricity was understood, promoted, feared, and exploited. While magnets and static electricity were known to the ancients, no one began to systematically investigate electrical phenomena until the Enlightenment. When Luigi Galvani made frog legs twitch with an electric shock, the public imagination leapt to make a connection between electricity and life itself. Mesmerism (hypnotism), originally called “animal magnetism,” became a fad in the late-18th century, and Romantic writers like Edgar Allan Poe were quick to seize on its sensational implications. But not until the 1840s did the telegraph first put electricity to work in the world. Many in the public, working from analogy with animal magnetism, at first believed that actual thoughts were being sent along the wires, a confusion that took a long while to die out. A similar confusion between electricity and the supposed vital force that characterized living beings led to the development of “electrotherapy,” a method of treatment promoted by George Beard, a Yale-educated physician whose ideas were supported by Thomas Edison, among others. Beard and his followers prescribed mild electrical shock as a cure-all, but its use was especially recommended for neurasthenia, the Victorians’ term for depression. Meanwhile, Edison was building a reputation as a wizard, in fierce competition with George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla. A key battle took place over the use of the electric chair, promoted by Edison (with exceedingly mixed motives) as a new, “humane” method of execution. At the end of the century, the discovery of X-rays—beneficial, but harmful when overused—opened new vistas of medical science. Simon dutifully touches all the bases, but fails to strike any sparks.
Fascinating subject, so-so treatment.