Electrifying Society

Dark Light: Electricity and Anxiety From The Telegraph To the X-ray

PHOTO: HARCOURT INC.

Dark Light: Electricity and Anxiety From The Telegraph To the X-ray By Linda Simon, Harcourt Inc., New York, 2004, 368 pp., US $25, ISBN 0-1510-0586-9

This thought-provoking book by Linda Simon, a professor of English at Skidmore College, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., offers a cultural history of late 19th-century America, "when electricity was a force stronger in the imagination than in reality." She describes the deeply ambiguous feelings of many people about electricity and what she believes to be the present-day consequences of these views. Dark Light is history as seen by a humanist and very different from conventional histories of technology or science. Simon draws from many works of the time, including medical works, newspaper and magazine articles, and literature, to describe and understand an anxious age.

Simon explores two major themes. The first, and most familiar, is the rapid growth of electrotechnology in the 19th century, a period that saw the invention of the telegraph (1844), the telephone (1876), the phonograph (1877), the first practical light bulb (1879), and the X-ray (1895). These developments were heralded by countless enthusiastic articles in the press and by expositions, such as the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Her second theme, which will be less familiar to most readers of IEEE Spectrum , examines the deeply mixed feelings that electricity raised in many people. Why were people so slow to adopt electricity into their homes? By the end of World War I, Simon notes, only 20 percent of U.S. homes had electricity installed—more than three decades after Thomas Edison installed the first lighting system in New York City.

The key breakthroughs in electrotechnological history happened in the second half of the 1800s. However, they occurred in the context of a centuries-long fascination with electricity. Quacks and mainstream doctors alike provided electrical treatments to countless patients.

Moreover, the 19th century was a time of vitalism and spiritualism, mind reading and séances. In this grab bag of ideas, many people conflated electricity with other phenomena entirely.

Some considered electricity both a cure and a cause of disease. George Beard, a prominent New York neurologist, named a new syndrome, neurasthenia, in 1869. He considered its symptoms—tiredness and weakness—to be caused by nerve weakness or an overtaxed nervous system, which could be restored by applying electricity to the body. Beard collaborated with Edison on developing equipment for electrical therapies. A prime cause of neurasthenia, Beard thought, was the acceleration of people's lives due to the telephone and telegraph.

Given this background, Simon points out, people easily came to view electricity as potentially dangerous. Edison hardly reduced such fears when he promoted electricity for legal execution and, in a series of widely publicized experiments in his workshop, killed numerous animals in preparation for the first electrocution of a prisoner in 1890. The tragic consequences to X-ray workers from the radiation emitted by their apparatus certainly contributed to popular anxieties about electricity.

Ultimately, Simon appears to be claiming that exaggerated fear was the reason the U.S. populace were slow to adopt electricity into their homes. But this claim is not convincingly argued. Perhaps the problem was simply the logistical difficulties in bringing affordable power to the then largely rural population of the United States. And early electrical systems truly were dangerous, until reliable construction codes could be put into place.

Simon goes on to cite modern-day fears of mobile phones and power lines as parallels to early concerns about electricity. It's obvious that such fears are strongly influenced by culture, but this will hardly sway people who believe in such hazards; nor will the many so-called electrosensitive individuals who feel that they are affected by weak electric fields in the environment be encouraged to embrace electrotechnology. On the other side of the coin, health concerns have scarcely stood in the way of widespread adoption of mobile phones.

Despite Simon's weakness in making a case regarding current fears, just where culture and science intersect in the health effects of electromagnetic fields remains an open and deeply interesting question. While neurasthenia is no longer an accepted diagnostic term in Western medicine, because of its vague and culturally laden diagnostic criteria, the term is still used in Russian and Chinese medical literature, which contain reports of neurasthenia's being caused by exposure to weak electromagnetic fields. Dark Light provides a fine historical perspective on this issue.

About the Author

Kenneth R. Foster (F) is professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, and a former president of the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology.

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