Q: Why did Ben Franklin fly a kite? A: Because he was ticked off at the scientific establishment.
So writes seasoned offbeat-tales-from-history writer Davis (The Billionaire Shell Game, 1998, etc.) in this anecdotally rich, eminently entertaining tale of how fluorescent bulbs, boom boxes, and other fruits of electricity came into being. Davis brings a light touch to the story without dumbing it down. He notes, for instance, that Franklin was indeed more than a little annoyed that the learned societies of London had failed for years to respond to his voluminous theories on electricity (lightning and electricity, he observed, were likely one and the same thing, for the observable qualities of each were alike in such matters as “rending bodies it passes through” and “destroying animals”), so much so that he determined to do something truly memorable to demonstrate that he knew whereof he spoke. Franklin was one of many experimenters and natural philosophers at work divining the mysteries of electricity during the appropriately named Enlightenment, and Davis pays homage to them and their successors, from Humphry Davy, “the prototype of the new nineteenth century’s emblematic figure, the lone inventor,” to Thomas Alva Edison, who, in Davis’s account, emerges as something just this side of loony. “In addition to the Old Man,” he writes, Edison’s underlings “also called him the Beast,” and for good reason: he was addicted to chewing tobacco and pie, reckoning that Americans were superior to the English and the rest of the world for their devotion to the latter; he was suspicious of Jews and fond of “coon jokes”; he lost huge fortunes creating weird contraptions; and he believed that automobiles and home radios were passing fancies. Still, Davis notes, Edison was a master of vertical integration, and his development of not just parts of the grid but the entire system made the “Electric Revolution” a part of everyday life.
A pleasure for students of technological history—and for readers with a fondness for bizarre personality types.