- A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders: Electricity and Enlightenment in Early America
The history of electricity in eighteenth-century America is very often reduced to the iconic image of Benjamin Franklin alone in a rainstorm holding aloft his kite to which is attached a key – the key to American science some might say. James Delbourgo's admirable new book reveals that Franklin was but one player in the development and integration of electrical science into the American consciousness during the Enlightenment. Indeed, A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders introduces readers to a host of overlooked electricians (the contemporary term given those who studied or performed with electricity) such as T. Gale, Ebenezer Kinnersley, Elisha Perkins, Archibald Spencer, Henry Moyes, and Samuel Domjen, to name only a few of Delbourgo's intriguing cast of characters. With his fine book Delbourgo joins a growing list of scholars who have lately considered provincialism, issues of the body, questions of vitalism, and indeed of 'Enlightenment' itself in eighteenth-century studies of Nature and its workings.
Following the opening chapter on Franklin, which serves as grounding for what is to come, Delbourgo then considers the careers of less-known figures, which make up the bulk of the book. Ebenezer Kinnersley was an ordained Baptist minister and the leading showman of electrical phenomena in America from 1749 to 1774, delivering public lectures and producing popular books. Dr T. Gale travelled in upstate New York, peddled electrotherapies, and authored a philosophical account of electricity that analogized it with the cleansing fire of the impending millennium. Elisha Perkins too capitalized on the growing enthusiasm for things electrical and offered a sensational treatment for the infirm. Perkins's Tractors (think elongated shoehorns) were passed over a patient's body and supposedly operated by electricity to effect cures. While modern readers might smile at such charlatanism, Perkins's career provides evidence for the degree that electricity had captured the imagination of Enlightenment-era America.
Animals and inanimate objects too find a place in this history. In chapter 5, Delbourgo demonstrates how understanding the electric eel had implications for both natural history and histories of Native Americans and slaves. Similarly illuminating is the chapter 2 discussion of the reception of the lightning rod, which is traditionally told as a story of progressive science trouncing zealous religious types who view lighting strikes as God's punishment and defence against them provided by lighting rods as an affront to divine providence. Conversely, Delbourgo reveals that promoters of lighting rods were just as religiously minded and theologically savvy as those who wrote against them and [End Page 249] that any sharp 'dichotomy between reason and superstition' are creations of modern scholars and would not have been recognized by contemporaries.
Other assumed stories of American electrical science are similarly shocked by Delbourgo's analysis, which illustrates that very little in eighteenth-century America, whether religious, political, medical, or public spectacle, happened independently of electricity. The result is a compelling cultural history of electricity and of early America that deserves a wide readership. Delbourgo's book is yet another example of very exciting times in the history of science.