Mysterious sun or poisonous vapour? Somewhat disconnected thoughts on the history of imagining electricity

Source: Tesla Society

While struggling to get the right sort of camping gear and all sorts of other stuff together for the first public appearance of Mutable Matter, I’m also in the process reading articles about electricity. Not because I am paranoid that a lightning bolt might hit my tent next week, but because I am curious how people have imagined or are imagining electricity and what consequences this has had.

The first article I came across was Steven Connor’s ‘Volts from the Blue’. It opens with a delightful paragraph on how the author’s mother imagined some kind of ‘electric matter’ creeping out of sockets. She thought that ‘one should never leave unoccupied plugs switched on overnight lest the electricity should leak out, and spread across the room at ankle level, in a deadly, prickly, miasmatic carpet’. Wow! This is even better than the dialogue in Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s book ‘The Disenchanted Night’ in which a couple is wondering what would happen if the wires broke and electricity ‘leaked out’ and accumulated in places (a great sentence: ‘My dear wife, one can breathe electricity without the least danger.’). I guess if we had more people like Steven Connor’s mother, we would not have so many problems with household CO2 emissions from standby appliances… Overall, the article pulls together nicely how electricity has been imagined in the last four centuries and manages to give an insight into how its assumed ‘strange’, ‘mysterious’ nature lent itself to all sorts of speculation – and application.

According to Connor, the first ‘epoch’ of electric imagination is characterised by electricity as a ‘sensory object, something that could be seen, known and understood.’ At times it was even described as ‘aromatic’. The second stage of our interaction with it (‘after Faraday’) is more abstract, use-value orientated. Electricity could now be managed and more efficiently exploited, so it did not matter anymore what it was made up of. It became invisible in more than one sense. From Connor’s article one gets the impression that the ‘immaterial’ is associated with the future. Creating ‘energy from nothing’ is still a dream (as is ‘substance from nothing’ if one recalls early announcements from certain nanotechnology pioneers).

‘Electricity represented the future, gas the clinging, lingering past. Gas was slow, odorous, insidious, organic, laborious, approximate, fluctuating, mucky, noisy and massy. Electricity was fast, clean, absolute, mathematical and abstract. Gas lighting is mysterious, impulsive, erotic…’

Connor also writes that ‘dematerialised electricity began to immaterialise the world’. Did it?

The article triggered connections with a number of things I had come across recently, for instance, the film ‘The Prestige’ (with David Bowie as Nikola Tesla!), Nigel Thrift’s ‘Electric Animals’, the aforementioned ‘The Disenchanted Night’, and, of course, the debates about the current energy dilemma: are the non-renewable resources such as coal, oil or gas currently portrayed as ‘slow, odorous, insidious, organic, laborious, approximate, fluctuating, mucky, noisy and massy’? Do we think of them as that when we fill up our car, cook our meals or turn on the heater?
Is energy from sun, wind or water the new fantasy of ‘energy from nothing’? Or is energy ‘from the elements’ in fact more ‘primitive’ and fickle than non-renewable resources? And which category does nuclear energy belong to?

How people relate to different kinds of energy, and how a particular energy is popularised or imagined, fascinates me. Always, the depictions seem to be riddled with contradictions. I vividly remember a discussion I had with a Landrover owner who got annoyed that yuppies now rode them around town as a status symbol and don’t use them like him – to drive into the hills and appreciate nature. The destruction of the nature in question through roads, car tires, pollution, CO2 emissions etc remained completely absent from this picture.

Nigel Thrift’s ‘Electric Animals’ talks about a different kind of nature. He finds that software enables the creation of an ‘electric wilderness’ by animating inanimate constructs. Recently, technology has not just been handling, disenfranchising or ‘immaterialising’ (= extinguishing) animals, but it has been learning from them and integrating animalistic elements into its design (think Luigi Colani/Janine Benyus or robotic hedghogs?). As Thrift puts it:

‘just as the materiality of technology has become an insistent force in the world of animals so the materiality of animals has become an insistent force in the world of technology.’

Source: Physorg.com

His other statement that ‘the future has a tendency to turn up not as some kind of gleaming and polished modernity but as overused and battered pieces of equipment’ reminded me of the time I read ‘The Disenchanted Night’, which follows the (one could say ‘nonlinear’) development of (and public reactions towards) artificial lighting. Sometimes things discarded by ‘progress’ re-materialise: the lightbulb is in some respects more archaic than the gas lamp. What I also found interesting was the mixed reactions towards gas and, later, electricity. Some considered electricity to be clean, purifying and ‘good for your health’ and others fearfully put up their umbrellas to ‘protect themselves from the rays of this mysterious new sun’.

Electricity’s primeval connection with thunder and magic is not only evoked Schivelbusch’s book, but also in the film ‘The Prestige’ (follow the link to look up the plot summary). It makes you think about how electricity must have appeared like magic when it was first implemented in everyday life – and how it still manages to imbue buildings, performances or new technological gadgets with a supernatural aura. Two major figures in the development of ‘electricity for the masses’ – the ‘unseen’ Thomas Edison (see Channel 4 review) and the more visible, eccentric Nikola Tesla – are also featured in the film. The Prestige shows them as rivals obsessed with proving that their way of working with electricity is the right one, probably after the ‘real’ rivalry of the ‘War of Currents’. Actually, the visibility is sort of reversed in the film and played with all the time (after all, this film focuses on the enmity of two magicians). For instance, Tesla, defamed as a madness-ridden magician or alchemist, is hiding away in seclusion – he is ‘visible’ only in the film. Edison is not visible in the film, but is the more acceptable public figure, an ‘engineer’ – and his light bulbs are everywhere. On the other hand, Edison’s lightbulbs are now so taken for granted and do not spell-bind as much as the visible electric force of the Tesla coil which is re-build and shown by many ‘coilers’ around the world. And certainly, how the two engineers envisioned electricity contributed to their invention style.

From: The Prestige

I wonder whether the current combination of ever-presence and hiddenness of electricity makes us not try to build a picture of electricity and the materialities that give rise to it – and our ability to handle it in such a casual manner. In this respect I agree with Connor that dematerialised electricity immaterialises. But I also wonder whether it can re-materialise?

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3 thoughts on “Mysterious sun or poisonous vapour? Somewhat disconnected thoughts on the history of imagining electricity

  1. You might have already considered it but have you looked at Frankenstein and the novel’s depiction of electricity – the power of the heavens yet harnessed by man in order to become God? Mary Shelley’s depiction of science and the scientist (and his creation) is probably very apt.

  2. Yes, that’s a good one. Must re-read it and look for ‘electricity moments’! Thanks! :)

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