Bringing Power to the People

A new book rescues the lost history of electrical engineering

On 20 August 1842 an explosion on the Potomac River pulverized an old clam boat and sent its ”millions of fragments 500 feet into the air,” in full view of U.S. President John Tyler and 8000 other spectators. The explosion was triggered by remote control, when Samuel Colt, the famous revolver maker, threw an electric switch some 8 kilometers downstream. A clearly awed Congress later gave Colt US $15 000 to pursue his research into what he called ”submarine batteries”—today’s mines and torpedoes.

A new book by technology historian Michael Brian Schiffer vividly recounts this and other little-known tales of the pioneers who first tamed ”galvanism” and mastered magnetism. These early innovators contended with such hidebound experts as pioneering scientist and founding Smithsonian director Joseph Henry, who, despite his discovery of inductance, impeded the practical application of this still-pure electrical science. Back stories, like the first sketches for a 1753 telegraph and a faxlike machine from 1853, emerge like long-neglected ghosts.

Coaxing these tales out of Power Struggles: Scientific Authority and the Creation of Practical Electricity Before Edison, however, requires some patience. Schiffer—who is, of all things, an anthropology professor at the University of Arizona at Tucson—meticulously researched his book, packing it with 1100 endnotes.

A preface confesses the author’s childhood determination to become an electrical engineer, and one senses in him a childlike wonderment, as if these ancient inventions were the world’s newest marvels. Gadget geeks will appreciate this gear-centric focus, a steampunk Consumer Electronics Show in book form.

However, scholarship comes first here, storytelling second. The narrative, such as it is, moves back and forth in time telegraphically. For instance, a scrappy kid named Charles Brush is, four paragraphs later, an industrial tycoon whose electrical arc lights have illuminated two continents and proudly crowned the new Statue of Liberty.

Now that Schiffer has compellingly mapped the neglected half century before Edison commercialized electricity, here’s hoping that someone will take these materials and concentrate on a single unifying thread or, better yet, threads, weaving them into one historical strand. Every journey—even that of a transatlantic telegraph message—must have a beginning, a middle, and an end.