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Power Struggles: Scientific Authority and the Creation of Practical Electricity before Edison by Michael Brian Schiffer (review)

From: Technology and Culture
Volume 55, Number 2, April 2014
pp. 499-501 | 10.1353/tech.2014.0044

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Power Struggles: Scientific Authority and the Creation of Practical Electricity before Edison. By Michael Brian Schiffer. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011. Pp. x+ 420. $19.

With descriptions of diverse subjects ranging from twitching frog legs to dazzling light sources, Power Struggles recounts the history of electricity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Though the book’s subtitle suggests a focus on the significance of science as the driving force for innovation in electrical technology, Michael Schiffer, a trained archeologist rather than a traditional historian, instead examines the relationship between scientists, inventors, and social institutions. In the process, he produces an easy-to-read volume written in a social-constructivist fashion that demonstrates the contributions and limits of science in the evolution of electrical devices.

In a way, the book is a debunking exercise, designed to demonstrate that Thomas Edison did not inaugurate the electrical age. Most historians of electrical technology—whom Schiffer credits and draws upon heavily—readily acknowledge this fact, suggesting that the book remains directed more toward a nonacademic audience than to the scholarly community. (The lack of a concluding chapter, in which authors often integrate thematic threads developed throughout a work, seems to confirm this notion.) Nevertheless, Schiffer tells stories of colorful actors who wowed the educated public and investors with scientific apparatus and industrial equipment that depended on static and current electricity. While most readers may already know the history of the development of electrical telegraphs and lights, they may have missed accounts of electrical devices [End Page 499] that ignited underwater explosives or the illuminating gas within the U.S. Capitol. The latter invention lit several gaslight fixtures simultaneously, allowing spectators to gawk at the monumental fresco painted on the Capitol dome’s interior surface.

Equally interesting, Schiffer interprets the success (or, using his term, “practicality”) of technological systems as the result of competitions among actors who expressed their social, economic, and political power. In an instructive example, the author describes rivalries among electric motor designers and scientists such as Joseph Henry. One of America’s greatest electricians, having unveiled fundamental theorems about electromagnetism, Henry epitomized scientists who employed their elite social status to help and hinder the development of new technologies. On one hand, Henry provided significant aid to Samuel Morse, inventor of an electrical telegraph, by endorsing its principles on a scientific basis and thereby enabling Morse to win financial and political support. But the same Henry, who believed (like many contemporaries) that science serves as the necessary precursor of technological innovation, also argued that electric motors could never replace steam engines as economically efficient sources of power.

Likewise, Schiffer seems to revel when portraying other socially preeminent scientists who made incorrect assessments about emerging technologies. Many of these notables denigrated the notion that Edison (or anyone else) could create modestly powered electric lights for illuminating rooms, which would contrast with commercially successful arc lights, sold by Charles Brush in the late 1870s, that lit up entire city squares. Drawing on the authority of “well-ascertained doctrines of science,” electrical experts argued that the “divisibility” of light would forever remain an “impracticable dream” (p. 305)—a dream converted into a reality by Thomas Edison in the 1880s.

While discounting the science-to-technology model using historical examples, Schiffer also observes that the success of innovations depends on a host of nontechnical factors. He describes assorted pieces of hardware, such as electric-arc lighthouses and telegraph systems, as “political technologies,” since they won support from governments eager to demonstrate their countries’ technological and moral superiority. Other creations, such as electric lighting devices, seemed to have been compelled by a “technological imperative” within society: early-nineteenth-century exhibitions of various (though impractical) lighting contraptions in such places as London’s Royal Institution inspired public commendation and excitement. When moderately efficient dynamos appeared a few decades later, serving as welcome replacements to cumbersome and expensive chemical batteries to make electricity, inventors felt compelled to continue striving to invent a practical electric light.

An immensely enjoyable book for a nonspecialist audience, Power Struggles describes the interplay of social and technical considerations that [End Page 500] influenced the development of electrical technologies. It...