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Technology and Culture 41.4 (2000) 810-812

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Book Review

Frankenstein's Children: Electricity, Exhibition, and Experiment in Early-Nineteenth-Century London

Frankenstein's Children: Electricity, Exhibition, and Experiment in Early-Nineteenth-Century London. By Iwan Rhys Morus. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998. Pp. xiv+324; illustrations, notes/references, bibliography, index. $45.

Written from the perspective of recent social studies of science, Frankenstein's Children enlarges the historiography of the ideology-technology relationship during electrification. We learn from Iwan Morus that the early nineteenth century reposed no less hope in electrical artificial intelligence than the late twentieth century does in electronic artificial intelligence; the issues discussed in this book are still with us, and it deserves a broad audience. Historians of technology might read Morus as a welcome addition to the powerful accounts of late-nineteenth-century electrification provided by Carolyn Marvin and David Nye.

In the book's two parts, Morus treats an initial period of experimentation with electricity ("The Places of Experiment") and a subsequent period of commercialization ("Managing Machine Culture"). Typical of the competition [End Page 810] during the experimentation phase was William Sturgeon's opposition to Michael Faraday's strategy of detaching electrical science from the construction and use of specific artifacts. This competition diminished as the labors of those who pursued an electrical utopia accumulated, but did not entirely disappear: William Fothergill Cooke's opposition to Charles Wheatstone's strategy of seeking a patent for electrical telegraphy on the grounds of the scientific principle involved, independent of the construction and use of specific instruments of telegraphy, is indicative of its continuation during the second period.

The disagreement over what constitutes proper electrical experimentation was thoroughly entangled in the competition between two institutional networks. For Sturgeon, explaining electrical phenomena as "a matter of understanding the technical details of the apparatus in which they were produced" (p. 53) was inseparable from challenging Faraday's rhetorical disassociation of electrical ontology from the skilled work carried on in the laboratories of the Royal Institution. It was also inseparable from promoting public experimentation and the exhibition of electricity in such venues as London's Galleries of Practical Science and from the formation of a supporting group, such as the London Electrical Society. The pattern of the Sturgeon-Faraday controversy was widely reproduced--in, for example, the broader argument concerning the proper electrical analogy of nature, or the extension of the uses of electricity from telegraphy and electroplating to electrotherapy. The debate between William Hooper Halse and Golding Bird over where to place the emphasis in introducing electricity into medical therapy--whether on the spectacular power of the electrical apparatus (Halse) or on the clinical practice of a physician (Bird)--is a telling case.

I wonder about the match between Morus's claim that Sturgeon "failed" (p. 69) and what he suggests in the following passage: "The telegraph and subsequently the electric power and light engineers of the later Victorian age were, however, in many ways the direct inheritors of the alternative, craft-based articulation of experimental practice. Neither did they entirely relinquish their claims to be men of science who had a legitimate right through their intimate familiarity with electrical instruments, machines, and systems to make claims about the operations of electricity in the natural world" (p. xii). How can we synthetically explain the specifics of the competition over what electrification ought to be with the general consensus over pursuing electrification? After all, why were they all--Faraday and Bird as well as Sturgeon and Halse--Frankenstein's children?

At stake here is the question of how the pattern of the Sturgeon-Faraday competition relates to capitalist class formation. In addressing this issue, I find Morus's concern with supplementing the perspective of recent sociology of science with the Marxian angle on social change to be very inviting. He attributes the two distinct trends of experimentation to "conflict [End Page 811] between 'artisanal' and 'middle-class' definitions of work and skill in terms of ownership, status, and relations to machinery" (p. xii). Antiessentialist Marxist conceptions of...


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