Draw the Lightning Down: Benjamin Franklin and Electrical Technology in the Age of Enlightenment
In the 1770s, wealthy Londoners found comfort and occasionally a cure in the Temple of Health of physician James Graham, a flamboyant practitioner of electromedicine. The showpiece of Graham's establishment was his Great Apollo Apartment, an enormous room outfitted with huge and beautiful electrical machines, a "magnetic crown" that could be raised and lowered, and a giant electrical connector in the form of a gilded dragon [End Page 840] with a crimson tongue and eyes lit by "liquid fire." Graham's apparatus bathed patients in soothing effluvia of electricity and magnetism. Although he was widely condemned as a quack, the controversial electrotherapist finds a place in Michael Schiffer's narrative as a member of one of the many electrical communities that sprang up in the eighteenth century.
An anthropologist with a longstanding interest in the history of electrical technology—his books include The Portable Radio in American Life (1991) and Taking Charge: The Electric Automobile in America (1994)—Schiffer believes that the history of electrostatics is too important and exciting to leave to scholarly specialists. Accordingly, he took special pains to fashion an engaging narrative line. As his hook he uses a biographical approach, highlighting the lives of the many colorful figures involved in the invention and diffusion of electrical technology, from Franklin to the likes of James Graham. The result is a spirited panorama of a mostly forgotten era of eighteenth-century electrostatics. Besides the famous figures, the Franklins, Priestleys, and Cavendishes, Schiffer introduces us to little-known instrument makers, electrobiologists, makers of lightning rods, and chemists, among others.
Draw the Lightning Down offers something for specialists as well. Its originality lies in Schiffer's archaeological approach, an omnivorous gathering of evidence to document the diffusion of electrical instruments and activities throughout society. He adopts an expansive definition of technology, embracing everything from Paleolithic stone chips to modern microelectronic chips. In addition to secondary literature his sources range from published scientific papers and museum collections to trade catalogs and boy's books (he admits not finding traditional archaeological evidence, such as parts of electrical machines in digs of eighteenth-century homes). Based on the evidence of widespread diffusion, Schiffer makes a strong case for pushing back the bounds of the electrical age to the eighteenth century, despite the fixation of historians on the great age of electromagnetism, the nineteenth.
Ultimately concerned with the cultural relationship between technology and human behavior, Schiffer organizes his book around communities of practice, with electrostatic artifacts as the nuclei. He identifies eight such technology-shaped communities: electrophysicists, disseminators, collectors and hobbyists, electrobiologists, earth scientists, property protectors (such as makers of lightning rods), "new alchemists," and visionary inventors. He then traces the development of electrostatic technology as it moves from community to community, from the scientists outward into society. His theoretical goal is a new technology transfer model with eighteenth-century electrostatics as a case study. He offers a multistage process of information transfer, experimentation, redesign, replication, acquisition, and use. Most interesting of these is the role of the user, who can be as much an innovator as the original inventor. Here Schiffer corroborates the recent findings of historian Edward Tenner, among others. [End Page 841]
These theoretical constructs never obscure the main narrative. Schiffer takes an archaeologist's joy in material evidence. Instruments and experiments are described in loving detail. Explanations are clear and accessible, and my only quibble concerns a need for more diagrams to guide the reader visually. Schiffer concludes that artifacts motivate and channel technological thinking, highlighting in particular the role of the investigator's playful instincts.
Schiffer the anthropologist is at his best in revealing the symbolic functions of electrical artifacts. They served variously as signs of prestige, of modernity and progress, and of safety. To alternative medical practitioners, they signified a concern for the whole human being, especially compared to the often barbaric practices of contemporary physicians. Finally, Schiffer makes an additional case for the import of eighteenth-century electrostatics as a precursor of telegraphy, the internal combustion engine, xerography, and even nanotechnology. While this is suggestive, it is enough to show that electrostatics enjoyed its own day in the sun, which Schiffer documents with persuasive enthusiasm.
Dr. Molella, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, began his career at the National Museum of American History as curator of electricity.