- A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders: Electricity and Enlightenment in Early America
James Delbourgo's incisive and superbly written new book joins a growing body of scholarship on the production of knowledge about nature in the eighteenth-century "Atlantic world." In recent years, important book-length studies by Ralph Bauer (The Cultural Geography of Colonial American Literature, 2003), Londa Schiebinger (Plants and Empire, 2004), Richard Drayton (Nature's Government, 2000), and Susan Scott Parrish (American Curiosity, 2005)—to name only some prominent examples—have contributed much to our understanding of how New World nature was produced as an object of knowledge through the circulation of specimens, images, written accounts, and epistemological assumptions around the Atlantic littoral. While these studies focus on different geographic zones and chronological periods, ranging from the colonial Caribbean (Schiebinger), to colonial Spanish America (Bauer), to late eighteenth-century Kew Gardens (Drayton), they share an interest in describing the underlying structure of transatlantic scientific communication between colony and metropole.
Delbourgo's is the first book in this field to devote such sustained attention to American enlightenment. Placing electrical performance, discourse, and experiment at the center of his account, he argues, on the one hand, that there was indeed a distinctive American variant of enlightenment culture. He makes a persuasive claim that the pursuit of knowledge in America was characterized by a complicated blend of intellectual modesty, antinomian disregard for central authority, and entrepreneurial innovation. In appealing to a broad public, practitioners of enlightened science privileged direct, nonrational, corporeal, and at times ecstatic ways of knowing. On the other hand, and with admirable subtlety, he insists that this American enlightenment must be understood as "an effect of Atlantic geopolitics" (282, emphasis added), as part of the complex process through which British Americans both contested, and, more surprisingly, acceded to the terms of imperial hierarchy. The book succeeds by offering fresh interpretations of iconic figures within the history of American "electrical [End Page 218] enlightenment," such as Benjamin Franklin, and by recovering the careers of lesser-known purveyors and promoters of electricity as public spectacle and commodity. The chapters focusing on Ebenezer Kinnersley, "T. Gale," and Dr. Elisha Perkins are all vivid and compelling.
The book opens with two chapters on Benjamin Franklin's electrical experiments. The first places Franklin's experiments of the 1740s within a historical moment when networks of knowledge exchange were developing alongside the commercial networks of the British Empire, thus allowing colonial Americans more direct participation in metropolitan polite science. In both Europe and America, during this moment of interconnectedness, electricity become known to a surprisingly broad public through demonstrations in which the electrification of human bodies—often the demonstrator's own—played a central role. Observing and reading of such demonstrations in the hub of Philadelphia, and adapting them in his own laboratory, Franklin theorized electricity as a force seeking a rational equilibrium between positive and negative charges. In so doing, however, Franklin did not entirely rationalize or secularize electricity. By detailing its shocking effect on his mind and body, he also emphasized its wondrous ability to elude understanding and control.
These themes are extended in a second chapter on the development of the lightning rod. While Franklin's lightning rod was thought by some to have directed electricity toward socially useful purposes, it as often raised difficult theological and practical questions about the dangerous enthusiasm of the electrical experimenter, the proper status of lightning as moral agent of divine special providence, and the frequent destruction of buildings when lighting rods failed to function as advertised. Striking in these chapters is the claim that by offering firsthand, "commonsensical" descriptions of electricity's effects, rather than calling attention to his own theorizing, Franklin slyly conformed to metropolitan demands for colonial philosophical modesty.
Chapter 3 focuses on Ebenezer Kinnersley as the "leading showman" of electricity in British America. Displaying the power and effects of electricity to audiences in New England, the West Indies, and every colony between, Kinnersley sought to refine Creole culture through pious and rational exhibitions. The...