publisher colophon

The fin de siècle American fascination with electricity has been well documented. David E. Nye, Carolyn Marvin, and other historians have explored the hopes and fears of the new technology in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and they have brought laboratories, living rooms, and worlds fairs back to life in the process. But turn-of-the-century writers and inventors sparked another fantasy that remains unaccounted for in these histories: the dream of enjoying electricity without the machinery or the corporations that generate it. This article recovers that dream of a wireless future. By reading Tesla in tandem with Edward Bellamy, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and other electrical utopians, this paper illuminates the utopian dimension of a major inventor; it challenges the conventional interpretation of the utopian novel as a vehicle for economic and political concerns; and it expands the history of electricity to account for a provocative and underexamined fantasy of wirelessness. Most importantly, it argues for the inextricable interrelationship of technological and literary production during the turn of the twentieth century.

The fin de siècle American fascination with electricity has been well documented. David E. Nye, Carolyn Marvin, and other historians [End Page 1] have explored the hopes and fears of the new technology in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and they have brought laboratories, living rooms, and worlds fairs back to life in the process.1 In the realm of fiction, Kenneth Roemer identified electricity as one of the three most frequently mentioned technologies in the 160 utopian, anti-utopian, and partially utopian novels he surveyed from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries.2 Although these scholars have analyzed the allure of electricity, turn-of-the-century writers and inventors sparked another fantasy that remains unaccounted for in these literary and technological histories: the dream of enjoying electricity without the machinery, the wires, or the corporations that generate it. This article recovers that dream of an unfettered electrical future.

The fantasy about unmediated access to electrical power was promulgated by the inventor Nikola Tesla, who patented and built experimental power transmission systems that he hoped would convey electricity without wires. It was also promoted by a coterie of utopian writers who were preoccupied with a distinctive form of electrical futurism. Unlike other electrical utopians, the writers we address in this paper—including Tesla, as well as John Bachelder, Arthur Bird, William Alexander Taylor, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman—were fascinated with electricity because of its presumed naturalness. They believed that electricity could be harnessed without traditional machinery because it occurred in nature.

The texts we examine in the following pages have been recovered by previous literary and technological historians. However, these scholars have examined Tesla and the utopian writers whom we explore disjointedly, and in the process they have overlooked the resonances between their bodies of work. Tesla has been remembered as a controversial inventor whose legacy and legitimacy remains subject to debate. Utopian writers in the United States have been studied mainly for their literary style and their political economy. Even [End Page 2] the pathbreaking work by Howard P. Segal—which focuses on the technological utopia at the turn of the twentieth century, including several novels that were written by inventors and engineers—relates technological utopian novels primarily to cultural beliefs rather than to other utopian texts written by inventors and engineers.3

We build on these scholarly traditions by contending that these figures must be studied in tandem. Specifically, we argue that Tesla and literary utopians mutually contributed to a set of discourses and ideas that Sheila Jasanoff and Sang-Hyun Kim describe as “sociotechnical imaginaries.” This concept connotes the “collectively imagined forms of social life and social order reflected in the design and fulfillment of nation-specific scientific and/or technological projects.”4 Because competing imaginaries envision how specific technological projects will create a desirable future, this framework is well suited to studying cultural fantasies about a classic sociotechnical system5—the electric light and power network.

In this paper, we identify and analyze a nuanced alternative to the dominant sociotechnical imaginary of electrification. The electrical industry tirelessly promoted the dominant imaginary by advertising in general-interest magazines, planting articles in newspapers, and lobbying politicians. They envisioned electricity as a modern, clean, and efficient form of energy that would become universal as large private corporations and state-regulated “natural” monopolies built gigantic power plants and electrical lines across the country.6 The discourses we examine in the following pages represent counter-narratives to this imaginary in Nye’s sense of the word: they are electrical utopias that “resist or reimagine technological change and seek to ground identity not in machines but in other cultural artifacts or values.”7 We argue that a subset of utopians—including Tesla—modified [End Page 3] the mainstream sociotechnical imaginary by specifying that social progress could only be attained if and only if electricity was divested from the industrial-age infrastructure that historically generated and transmitted it. These utopians emphasized and distorted the fact that electricity occurs naturally in order to imply that it could be harnessed without wires, substations, central plants, or any of the existing infrastructures used to create the early power transmission system.

The counter-narrative that these historical figures constructed was admittedly less “durable” than the policy-bolstered sociotechnical imaginaries that Jasanoff and Kim explore.8 Nonetheless, it reveals a compelling vision that helps to expand our understanding of the social meanings of electricity at the turn of the twentieth century. The alternative sociotechnical imaginary went far beyond the popular presumption that electrification represented a powerful step in the march of industrial and social progress. According to Tesla and the other electrical utopians whom we discuss, electrical energy was not just better than gas or steam: it embodied the promise for a radical shift in the possibilities of energy consumption. These public figures imagined—however impractically—that electricity harnessed directly from the atmosphere or transmitted through the earth and the air might obviate the need for corrupt utilities companies and corporations. By focusing on the natural occurence of this energy, they invited their readers to understand what social construction of technology scholars call the “interpretive flexibility” of technological systems.9 That is, these visionaries urged their readers to recognize that existing infrastructure was only one possible method for accessing electrical power, and they intimated that electricity could be harnessed in less industrial ways and for less capitalistic ends. Ultimately, by reading Tesla and these electrical utopians as contributing to a cognizable imaginary, we advance four claims: we illuminate the utopian dimension of a major inventor; we challenge the conventional interpretation of the utopian novel as solely a vehicle for economic and political concerns; we elucidate the entanglement of literary and technological innovators; and we garner a richer understanding [End Page 4] about the contested social meanings of electrifying the United States.

Tesla’s Sociotechnical Imaginary and the Bellamy Analogy

Tesla began to promote his alternative sociotechnical imaginary in his first public lecture about transmitting electricity without wires. In 1891 he delivered a lecture to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers at Columbia University, and he awed the crowd by illuminating lamps he held in his hands.10 Joseph Wetzler, one of Tesla’s early promoters, described this lecture as more imaginative than the most compelling utopian novel: “We have discerned the shores of discoveries in electricity which will go far towards the realization of results that the most advanced prophet of the Bellamy school has not yet ventured to predict.”11 It might seem unusual for Tesla’s promoter to measure the inventor according to the metric of a fiction writer—especially considering that detractors also used the moniker “utopian” to deride his work.12 But Tesla demonstrated this invention while the field of electrical engineering was still professionalizing; his proclivity for sensationalism was at this time still considered a legitimate promotional tactic. [End Page 5]

More importantly, as Roemer and Segal have demonstrated, the circulation of technological utopias during the turn of the twentieth century inspired many Americans to see inventors and utopians as sharing a convergent goal: both groups hoped to inspire technological progress that could improve American daily life. Indeed, theorist Frederic Jameson implied that utopians and inventors were more than similar. He claimed, “The Utopian calling, indeed, seems to have some kinship with that of the inventor in modern times.”13 By comparing Tesla’s performance to “the Bellamy school,” Wetzler implied that the inventor had created an invention fantastic enough to resonate with utopian fantasies about America’s electrified future. The promoter did not realize that Tesla’s alternative model of energy transmission represented a distinctive sociotechnical imaginary about literally placing electricity in the hands of the electrical consumer. Nonetheless, the erasure of machinery was central to Tesla’s imaginary. For the rest of his career, he promoted his wireless electrical transmission system that would minimize intermediating machinery. The removal of unnecessary machinery was an explicitly tantalizing aspect of Tesla’s vision for the future.

By failing to recognize the significance of Tesla’s eschewal of wires, Wetzler reinforced the prevailing correlation between technological development and utopian literature. Like many writers and scholars of his generation, the promoter did not consider how competing fantasies about the future could be bolstered by different narratives or technical designs. Wetzler indicated this generalization with his invocation of “the Bellamy school,” although Bellamy was not a “technological utopian” according to Segal’s definition of the term. Indeed, Bellamy initially showed no particular affinity for electrical power; he wrote Looking Backward in 1888, just six years after Edison set up his first electric lighting plant in lower Manhattan. Despite Bellamy’s initial disinterest in electricity, fin de siècle newspaper coverage of electrical inventions presumed and continuously deepened an affiliation between Bellamy and electrical development of any sort.14 Such references indicate how Bellamy’s name came to signify [End Page 6] more than the technological landscape of his first utopian novel. As the most famous and rhetorically savvy writer in this genre, he became a metonym for the utopia in general—including the more obscure utopias that focus primarily on electrical inventions.

Invocations of Bellamy’s name register the entanglement of the literary utopia and electrical development in the American cultural imagination. They also overgeneralize. Such undiscerning narratives about electricity and utopia promoted indiscriminate faith in electrical progress that has perplexed scholars such as James W. Carey, John J. Quirk, and Thomas Parke Hughes, who marveled at the remarkable resilience of generic “electrical utopianism,” despite the failure of other related inventions to live up to their progressive promises.15 The electromagnetic telegraph, for example, failed to enhance democracy as many nineteenth-century Americans hoped it might.16 Writers, practitioners, and policy-makers who believed that electrification would spur social progress seemed irrationally to overlook such failures. However, the alternative sociotechnical imaginary that we identify recognized and accounted for these failings. Utopians who fostered the dream of an unfettered electrical future did not blindly put their faith in electricity as an agent of change; they idealized an electrical transmission system that could work without wires or heavy machinery as a design solution for the social problems that arose from industrialization. In order to discern the signal of Tesla’s Columbia performance of wireless power transmission, we must recognize the Bellamy comparison as noise and consider more salient utopian resonances. [End Page 7]

Electrical Utopianism beyond Bellamy

While some interpreted Looking Backward as the prophetic tale of the coming electrical age, electrical utopians critiqued Bellamy’s first novel for its anemic depiction of technological progress. One such critic, John Bachelder, published A.D. 2050: Electrical Development at Atlantis (1890) with the first wave of responses to Bellamy. As Segal notes, Bachelder had a personal interest in notion of technological progress: before writing this utopia, he helped to refine the sewing machine.17 Bachelder’s novel revised Bellamy’s vision of the future by moving electricity from the margins of the utopia to the center. His subtitle, Electrical Development at Atlantis, established the larger role that this energy would play in his vision of the future. More importantly, his was among the earliest texts to promote a fantasy of unfettered power transmission.

Published two years after Looking Backward and one year before Tesla’s lecture at Columbia, A.D. 2050 flew in the face of Bellamy’s example. Its Preface began, “After reading Bellamy’s ‘Looking Backward’ it occurred to me that so far as scientific and material development were concerned there had been scarcely any improvement upon the condition at the close of the [nineteenth] century.”18 It wryly added, “Had they been resting for a century?” This Preface poked fun at Bellamy’s conservative technological predictions. It asserted that a convincing depiction of the future must include electrical devices that would appear as magical to the nineteenth-century reader as electric light appeared to a generation that was raised with candles or gaslights.

Bachelder further distinguished his utopia from Bellamy’s by giving his narrator more control over electrical technology. Bellamy’s narrator, Julian West, accidentally finds himself in the year 2000 after awakening from mesmeric sleep; Bachelder’s narrator controlled his time travel. Once in the twenty-first century, A.D. 2050’s protagonist finds that electricity has overhauled the daily lives of select Americans, who emigrated to the island of Atlantis. The narrator posits the control of electricity as the single “great invention” that catalyzed utopia:

Electricity, as we now control and utilize it, divested of the expensive machinery and initial power, formerly necessary, gave us an immense advantage, especially [End Page 8] where intense heat and great power were requisite. It has been applied to the propulsion of vessels, railway trains and machinery, working ores of copper, iron and aluminum, and the artificial production of diamonds and stone.

They all hinge upon one great invention, viz: The application and control of electricity, which is a national secret.19

In Bachelder’s utopian vision, electricity would enhance wealth by creating aluminum as well as diamonds. He imagined that new applications of this energy would modify every aspect of society, from the stones used in building to the methods used in cremation.

This novel promoted a prototypical fantasy that would evolve into a distinctive sociotechnical imaginary. Although Bachelder described a central station and electrical cables in his novel, he distinguished himself from other technological utopians of the time by replacing privately owned nineteenth-century machinery with more unfettered technology. Electricity was more than useful to Bachelder; it represented a solution to the problems of the industrial age. When he described electricity as “divested of machinery,” he depicted this energy as extricable from dynamos and steam engines and made available through easily operated “black box” generators. In this way, Bachelder hinted that the new source of electricity might render traditional forms of mechanization obsolete. Tesla’s work on wireless energy transmission shared this aspiration. Both Tesla and Bachelder understood electricity as a clean energy that need not be constrained by equipment that was “formerly necessary” for its generation and distribution.

After Tesla’s 1891 lecture—though not necessarily because of it—electrical utopians elaborated upon Bachelder’s vision of divestment. Utopians from this period wanted to do away with industrial-age “machinery” to erase pollution and class conflict from their versions of the future. Students of utopian thought have interpreted these common themes as expressions of anxiety. For example, Neil Harris argues that the utopian authors’ desire to control electricity demonstrates their concerns about the dangers of unbridled electrification. Harris contends that utopias

demonstrate the impact of modernization upon American life, presenting worlds ruled by strange machines, crowded with masses of people, and reverent toward scientific truth. The novels’ solution to political and economic problems built on the classic anxieties we associate with this period. But their [End Page 9] fictional details answered more intimate and perhaps more fundamental personal fears.20

According to Harris, the fascination with controlling electricity betrays utopians’ concerns about the uncontrollable aspects of this potentially fatal technology.

The dangers that utopians confronted with their fiction were real. In Manhattan, an electric wire panic gripped the city in 1889, after several people died by touching poorly insulated overhead wires that had fallen on the streets. At least seventeen people were killed in this manner between 1887 and 1889. The city took down unsafe lines, and electric lighting only gradually replaced gaslamps.21 Yet the desire by utopian authors to control electrical power, light, and communication intensified because these fears emerged from social dangers as well. Bellamy, Bachelder, and other utopians wrote at a time when new technologies seemed to be destroying republican values by bolstering monopolies and widening the gulf between the rich and poor.

Electricity evoked these concerns in two ways. It was a luxury good that illustrated income disparities, and it was a labor-saving technology that had the potential to exacerbate class problems if controlled by greedy capitalists. In fact, one writer’s argument for the nationalization of electricity emphasized the dangers that the monopoly of electric power, the telegraph, and the telephone would cause.22 Utopians clearly wished to mitigate the risks associated with electrification. They wanted to enjoy electrical power without social and physical danger. For example, the near-magical applications of electricity in Bachelder’s novel also represent a fantasy of governmental control. In Atlantis, a government commission of scientists guards the national secret of electrical power. The “generators of electrical power are so constructed and sealed that they cannot be [End Page 10] opened without destroying the mechanism and the person tampering with it,” the narrator explains. “All the engineer has to do, to use and control the power, is to turn a screw by means of a hand wheel. The amount of power is indicated by a dial.”23 The role the commission plays in this novel is revealing. When Bachelder places the power of electricity in the hands of a government commission—rather than under the purview of private businesspeople—he ostensibly responds to contemporary fears about wealth disparities and the public trust.

Cultural anxieties likely did inspire writers and technologists to imagine a better future, but their responses to these anxieties warrant close consideration because they betray a revealing set of assumptions about electrical futurism. Fear of private corporations remained a consistent theme in electrical utopias that promoted a wide range of sociotechnical imaginaries. However, the depiction of wire-free electrical systems represents a specific, idiosyncratic fantasy about America’s most desirable future. The utopians who cultivated a dream of an unfettered electrical future might have imagined a perfect systems of underground wires, as other utopians had. In fact, they might have imagined an alternative energy source altogether. Yet, our cadre of electrical utopians promoted an alternative socio-technical imaginary that glorified electric energy while denigrating machinery. To address the problems they perceived with electrical power generation and distribution, these public figures exploited the common knowledge that this energy could be found in the atmosphere, earth, and human body; they marginalized the fact that electricity was usually generated by burning coal; and they characterized electricity as free, natural, and fantastically accessible in order to imagine how more advanced societies could learn how to harness power without the intermediating corporations or heavy machinery that generated and distributed electricity at the time. Put simply, these writers yearned for more than a wider variety of labor-saving apparatuses. They promoted a new configuration of electrical power transmission that could render private utilities companies entirely obsolete.

Tesla compounded this fantasy in his experiments, interviews, and essays. For example, in an 1894 interview with Wetzler’s colleague and co-editor, Thomas Commerford Martin, Tesla promised to “hook our machinery directly to that of nature.”24 Here, the inventor referenced his desire to use the atmosphere and the earth [End Page 11] itself to convey electricity, several years before he would file a set of patents for inventions that evoked these aspirations.25 In his later experiments with a tower on Long Island, he tried to send electrical oscillations through the Earth’s crust at its resonant frequency. This method employed the atmosphere as the “return circuit” for transmitting power without wires.26

Tesla’s emphasis on the “natural” dimension of his circuits resembled a magician’s misdirection. Before he could transmit electrical energy through natural media, he must generate a large amount of electrical power. But Tesla conspicuously omitted the source of his energy—most likely coal—in order to portray his distribution systems as inherently clean. By eliding his process of power generation and exaggerating his use of the earth or atmosphere, Tesla framed his inventions as utopian in two ways. First, he echoed Bachelder’s desire to erase “machinery.” Second, he framed his technical innovations as a cause of social progress. If electricity could be transmitted (and concomitantly received) across the globe without wires, then he implied that consumers could harness electricity without power companies metering and monetizing their power consumption. This fantasy motivated the inventor’s late work, and when considered in tandem with likeminded utopias of the day, it fostered an alternative imaginary about the role that electricity should play in America’s future.

Bellamy’s Equality and the Tesla School

By emphasizing the natural components of his power transmission system, Tesla appealed to longstanding fantasies about pastoral technologies that would not pollute the American landscape.27 Bellamy incorporated these fantasies into his second utopian novel, Equality (1897). This novel responded to critiques about his former novel, including [End Page 12] Bachelder’s complaint that Looking Backward seemed insufficiently electrified. In Bellamy’s sequel, an unlimited, almost costless supply of electricity comes from geothermal, wind, and water power in the year 2000.28

Like Tesla and Bachelder, Bellamy imagined limitless applications of this “natural” energy. His protagonist boasts, “The discovery of the electrical powers had made almost any mechanical conception seem possible.”29 Unlike Tesla, who focused on distribution, Bellamy emphasized how heat, “tides, winds, and waterfalls” could be used to power his futuristic technology.30 He also challenged Tesla’s claim that new power systems could solve social or economic problems. Despite the abundance of clean electrical power in this novel, Bellamy insisted that these new technologies would be subordinate instruments of social progress. Throughout Equality, he consistently claimed that his utopia’s message was humanist and not technological.

This sequel refined a point that was often overlooked in Looking Backward: Bellamy believed that Americans should clamor for meaningful social change rather than for new-and-improved gadgets. His protagonist claimed that a moral revolution—and a concomitant restructuring of the political-economic system—would enable the development of a more just technological order.31 In this way, Bellamy implied that the relationship between social and technological progress was not reciprocal. Unlike Tesla and Bachelder, this prominent writer believed that moral progress must come first. Pushing back against Bachelder, Tesla, and other utopians’ claims that electrical technology could drive social progress, Bellamy contended that human life must be enjoyable and fulfilling before new inventions of any sort could seem worthwhile. In other words, he asks what good an electric airship would do for a person who could only use such a device to travel to and from an enervating job.

Equality’s humanist message raised questions about the correlations journalists drew between “the Bellamy school” and Tesla’s inventions (or electrical development in general). Despite Bellamy’s protestations, journalists continued to invoke the author as a symbol for technological futurism, and critics still judged the novel for its technological vision. A negative review of Equality explains, “[T]he inherent weakness and unreliableness of all utopianism is seen in [End Page 13] Mr. Bellamy’s imagined physical inventions. He outruns the imagination of Tesla, Maxim, and Edison, and his twentieth century republic teems with strange contrivances. If these inventions were simply hopeful fore-looks one might be content to pass them by with a smile; but they are used artfully to get the author round many a difficult economic corner.”32 This review accused Bellamy of using electricity as a plot device to bolster his nationalistic politics. It also implied that Bellamy inflated his utopian depictions of technological change, perhaps overcorrecting for earlier critiques like Bachelder’s. Such reviews of Equality indicate that some readers overlooked Bellamy’s thoughtful appeal for moral and economic progress as they relished his depictions of technological change. They demonstrate that Bellamy’s humanistic understanding of progress was ignored, even as his novels became bestsellers. During this era, improvements in technical and economic efficiency came to be seen by a wide readership as ends in themselves, despite the intervention Bellamy hoped to make with his novels.33

This shift in the prevailing conception of progress inflected the public’s expectations for inventors and utopians. It created the climate in which Tesla’s writing appeared too utopian, while Bellamy’s seemed either insufficiently or overly technological. Critical reviews reveal that public perceptions of Tesla and the utopian “Bellamy school” evolved in tension with one another. Electrical experts and belletrists both cited this relationship to patrol the boundaries of their respective disciplines. For scientific and literary critics of the day, Tesla’s claims veered too far toward the fantastic, while Bellamy’s Looking Backward and Equality were criticized by some readers for depicting too little and too much technological change, respectively. Utopian novels and Tesla’s work seem to have been most celebrated when they balanced their fantastic projections with the contemporary conventions of science writing. Perhaps cutting-edge electrical development was better accepted when it had a touch of the fantastic or utopian, and utopias were best received when they exuded an aura of scientific realism.

Developing a Fantasy of Unfettered Electrical Power

Arthur Bird’s technological utopia, Looking Forward: A Dream of the United States of the Americas in 1999, published two years after Equality, [End Page 14] strove to balance fantasy and scientific realism more successfully than his predecessors had. A jingoistic, small-town New York newspaper editor, Bird organized his history of the future as a series of conflicts and innovations. His novel undermined Bellamy’s claim that a utopian future would require moral and political progress to stimulate technological development. Bird asserted, “Do not imagine for one moment that in the brief compass of a century human nature had changed.” Instead, in Looking Forward, the material and technological bases of society effected social change: “The eighteenth century was an era of oak and sails; the nineteenth century proved to be an age of iron, steel and steam, but the twentieth century witnessed far greater strides of improvement resulting from the solution of the aerial navigation problem and the conquest of electricity.”34 Bird’s projections about progress accorded with the emergent belief that technology could drive social change.

Throughout his novel, Bird suggested that desirable social progress reduced to two basic engineering problems: how to control electricity and how to conquer the air. Asserting that “[t]he solution of these two great problems alone rendered the twentieth century the most marvelous age of all since the birth of Christ,” he implied that solving these technical questions would somehow rectify larger social issues.35 While promoting his technologically deterministic vision, Bird enrolled Tesla as a character whose inventive prowess would (by this logic) also render him a benefactor of humankind. His narrator explained, “In 1917 the problem of aerial navigation had been practically solved by Tesla, in whose brain many secrets of nature had long been harbored. With the aid and potentiality of electricity, (the slave of the twentieth century), aerial navigation had been perfected.”36 Although Tesla is only mentioned briefly as the inventor who developed electrical aviation, he becomes a character in a fictional work that shared many of his actual aspirations for electrical development.

Like Tesla and Bachelder, Bird assumed that electricity would play a central role in the formation of America’s future—although the latter’s vision, alone, projected that this future would be imperialistic. Bird imagined that the major newspaper of 1999 would be called The Electrical Times, and he includes a chapter on “The Age of Electricity,” [End Page 15] followed by one on “Electrical Navigation,” which detail a humorous litany of unrelated electrical innovations. He claimed, “In 1999 electricity became a mighty monarch and an obedient slave. It ruled and it obeyed. In the twentieth century electricity, the servant-king of the world, was harnessed to everything conceivable. Everything was done by merely pressing a button.”37 This oxymoron of the servant-king combined the meanings of service and mastery that are found individually in other utopias. Bachelder, Tesla, Bird, and even Bellamy describe electricity as a versatile power that could accomplish almost anything. At the same time, they fantasized that such an unwieldy power could be controlled absolutely under specific social conditions.

Bird amalgamated this fantasy of control with the desire to eradicate industrial-age machinery. His depiction of electricity being “drawn directly from coal, as well as the air” echoed Bachelder and Tesla’s desire to harness electricity without intermediating heavy machinery.38 Bird imagined a future in which “[t]he partnership existing between the old-fashion steam engine and electric dynamos was dissolved forever in 1920. Electricity conducted the business alone and in its own name after steam and its clumsy accessories withdrew from the firm.”39 By discarding the steam engine and electric dynamo, Bird invested in a radically new sociotechnical imaginary that promoted the idea that untethered electricity had the power to dramatically alleviate the ills caused by industrialization.

Narratives like Looking Forward recast the first industrial revolution as dystopian. These accounts drew attention to the fact that the first wave of industrialization relied on burning coal to heat homes and to fuel steam engines. The new electrical age appeared cleaner and more equitable in contrast. As Harris hypothesized, these utopias worked through significant social and political concerns of the day. Steam once symbolized a new modern age in the early nineteenth century, but by the late nineteenth century reformists disparaged [End Page 16] coal-based industrialization. Steam created air pollution, railroad accidents, terrible working conditions in factories, and ugly skylines. Thus, technological utopians had good reason to construct an alternate sociotechnical imaginary of a perfect society that had eliminated the old “machinery.” Their urge to shun such emblems of industrialization emerged, in part, from a deeper desire to break from nineteenth-century conventions and corporations. However, as we have argued, their characterization of electricity as a force that could transcend the strictures of industry revealed more than a cultural anxiety; it betrayed a fundamental faith in electricity as a force in itself.

Historian and journalist William Alexander Taylor developed the affirmative connotations of electricity in his utopian novel Intermere (1901). Where Bird emphasized the divestment of machinery, Taylor described an innovative apparatus for enjoying this energy in its liberated form. Indeed, although Taylor did not mention Tesla’s inventions by name, he described a power distribution system that accorded with the inventor’s wireless power designs. Like Tesla, Taylor glamorized the fantasy of drawing electrical power from the atmosphere.

Taylor accomplished in fiction what Tesla strove for (and never fully realized) in the laboratory. Despite the inventor’s claims to the contrary, Tesla’s earliest wireless power transmission scheme did not eliminate heavy machinery in the manner that Taylor imagined. Tesla had to generate electricity to send electrical oscillations through the Earth’s crust; then he relied on an ionized atmosphere to complete a return circuit between two metallic balloons—one tethered to the generator and one to a receiving station some distance away—in order to transmit electricity wirelessly across the land and the sky.40 Taylor elided the whole system of balloons and generators. In his utopia, users drew electricity directly from the air by means of “accumulators,” which consisted of “two crystalline elongated globes, the size of an egg each,” filled with a granualted substance and coils of wire. They were “connected by a small tube or cylinder of the same material two or three inches in length.”41 Different types of accumulators produced mechanical power, light, and heat, perhaps extrapolating or anticipating Tesla’s ideas about “individualizing” electrical oscillations.42 [End Page 17]

Taylor did not mention any external generating apparatus that would involve government or industrial intervention. Electric transportation and heat are plentiful, and “there is no night in Intermere. With the twilight myriads of lights flash out everywhere. . . . But one sees no wires, as with us, to feed the lamps of many sizes and shades of light, each one of which, so far as we can see and realize, is independent of all others and everything.”43 Considered independently, this description of wirelessness could appear to be simply descriptive, but read alongside similar visions of a wire-free future, Taylor’s novel fosters the alternative sociotechnical imaginary of a naturally electrified future.

Taylor reframed the fantasy of unfettered electrical power by approaching this theme from an atypical perspective. In contrast to our above examples, he drew on Thomas More’s original model of the sixteenth century rather than Bellamy’s: Intermere depicted a hidden land in the present moment rather than America in the future. The country of Intermere represented an alternative present that has out-paced early twentieth-century electrical progress. While Americans pay high prices for metered electricity, the citizens of Intermere enjoy this energy freely because they unearthed its secrets unselfishly. Taylor’s setting undermined the utopian notion that America would enjoy a perfect electrical future.44 By setting Intermere in the present moment, rather than in the future, Taylor lent weight to his claim that American electrical development was hindered by commercial interests.

Taylor deviated from “the Bellamy school” in another significant way: where Bellamy urged Americans to improve “life itself,” Taylor claimed that electricity is life itself. As an “insider” of Intermere explains to Taylor’s “outsider” narrator, “You would learn the secret of the motive principle that moves our mechanical devices and performs other offices which seem to you miraculous. It is this: It is the electric current which we take direct from the atmosphere at will—electricity, which is the life-giving, life-preserving and life-promoting principle. . . . To command that is to command everything.”45 Taylor shared Bird and Bachelder’s preoccupation with commanding [End Page 18] the unwieldy electric spark, but he did not write against Bellamy’s model in the process. Instead, Taylor synthesized Bellamy’s example of moral and political change with Bachelder, Bird, and Tesla’s aspirations for electrical development without industrial-age machinery.46

Intermere stressed the importance of a science driven by the moral good rather than by economic incentives. Every electrical wonder in the novel attested to the superiority of an altruistic scientific method. An insider to his utopia explained, “Your Edison and other electrical discoverers are more than a cycle behind us. . . . To them and to others the current of the Universe is a constant menace and a danger. To us it [is] as gentle and harmless as the flowers that bloom by the wayside, and responds to our every wish and use with absolute tractability. The fault of the rest of the world is that all great discoveries, all the unlockings of Nature’s treasure house, are turned to selfish ends.”47 Taylor argued that Edison and other electrical experts could never harness the gentler aspects of electricity because their scientific methods were inherently corrupted by capitalistic selfishness. He thus described two dystopian elements of the first industrial revolution as co-mingled. That is, he implied that electric wire panics happen because of the socio-economic conditions that drive electrical development in the United States. By bringing these cultural anxieties together, Taylor advocated a moral revolution like the one Bellamy describes in Equality, with one significant modification. Whereas Bellamy claims that moral change must come first, Taylor contends that moral and technological changes must evolve together. In Intermere, these forms of progress are inextricable—when electricity is divested of the industrial-age machinery that generated it.

Tesla as an Electrical Utopian

While utopians invoked Tesla—directly, like Bird, or obliquely, like Taylor—Tesla made utopian claims about the entanglement of human happiness and electrical development. In June 1900, between the publication of Looking Forward and Intermere, Tesla published an utopian essay on “The Problem of Increasing Human Energy” in the genteel publication, The Century Magazine, edited by his friend [End Page 19] and sponsor Robert Underwood Johnson. As Bernard Carlson argues, “Rather than focus the article on his recent accomplishments in Colorado, Tesla began expanding it, determined to show how his inventions constituted a grand intellectual scheme.”48 In other words, Tesla used this controversial and lengthy essay to explain to the general public how his inventions realized the aspirations of his sociotechnical imaginary.

Integrating his work on wireless power transmission into a larger metaphysical treatise, Tesla’s essay used an analogy from physics to relate the nebulous concept of “human energy” to the product of the “mass” of humankind with the square of its “velocity.” This formula aligned electrical developments with social progess. It claimed, for example, that the electrical production of nitrate fertilizers and Tesla’s invention of a radio-controlled boat would increase human mass and velocity, and thus human energy. Tesla also claimed that he developed his system of wireless telegraphy because “of the moral effect which it could not fail to produce universally.”49 Concomitantly, he argued that the highest form of human civilization would involve “the transmission without wires of electrical energy.”50 To Tesla, unfettered electricity would necessarily yield social change. The inventor was so convinced of the beneficiality of his socio-technical plans that when he had heard rumors that he would be awarded a Nobel Prize, he presumed that his work in wireless power transmission would inevitably be the reason for his award—not his scientifically sanctioned work with polyphase systems. He told the New York Times, “I have concluded . . . that the honor has been conferred upon me in acknowledgment of a discovery announced a short time ago which concerns the transmission of electrical energy without wires.”51

Unlike his succinct New York Times interview, Tesla’s elaborate exegesis on “The Problem of Increasing Human Energy” in The Century Magazine was complex, sensational, and difficult to follow. We include the following passage at length to illustrate his idealization of wireless power transmission and to demonstrate the convolutedness of his utopian argument: [End Page 20]

From the very beginning three ways of drawing energy from the sun were open to man. The savage, when he warmed his frozen limbs at a fire kindled in some way, availed himself of the energy of the sun stored in the burning material. When he carried a bundle of branches to his cave and burned them there, he made use of the sun’s stored energy transported from one to another locality. When he set sail to his canoe, he utilized the energy of the sun applied to the atmosphere or the ambient medium. There can be no doubt that the first is the oldest way. A fire, found accidentally, taught the savage to appreciate its beneficial heat. He then very likely conceived of the idea of carrying the glowing members to his abode. Finally he learned to use the force of a swift current of water or air. It is characteristic of modern development that progress has been effected in the same order. The utilization of the energy stored in wood or coal, or, generally speaking, fuel, led to the steam-engine. Next a great stride in advance was made in energy-transportation by the use of electricity, which permitted the transfer of energy from one locality to another without transporting the material. But as to the utilization of the energy of the ambient medium, no radical step forward has as yet been made known.52

In this passage, Tesla traced how humans indirectly use energy from the sun. He even interpreted the “ambient medium” or “atmosphere” as stored solar energy, perhaps because wind power is derived from changes in temperature. These accounts circuitously invoked power generation, the process by which “stored” energy becomes usable. Like many electrical utopians, Tesla recast the first industrial revolution as wasteful. He aspired to create a society that consumed no fossil fuel resources to generate electricity.53 In this respect, Tesla’s vision parallels that of the utopians who characterize electricity as an energy that can be harnessed without harming the environment.

Tesla’s project became less conventional when he turned to discuss “the utilization of the energy of the ambient medium”—a point he referred to twice in quick succession. In this essay, he implied that “the ambient medium” should be used as a means of power generation and transmission. He went so far as to argue that the “transmission without wires of electrical energy” was the end-goal of human civilization.54 Although he did not explicitly justify his fascination with removing wires, he implied that the ambient medium and wirelessly transmitted power would both represent a direct use of energy [End Page 21] that had been unavailable to humankind. According to his earlier algorithm, this new use of power would indicate an increase in human progress.

“The Problem of Increasing Human Energy” was among Tesla’s most controversial texts, but as we have seen, this was not the only venue the inventor used to promote his utopian dream of an unfettered electrical future. Tesla spoke of these plans in his autobiographical piece, My Inventions,55 and in an array of interviews throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The newly available archive of articles by and about the inventor, The Tesla Collection, cites 103 articles about the topic of “Wireless Electricity” alone. Among these snippets, a four-page spread for The New York Tribune Sunday Magazine on “Wireless Power” exemplifies Tesla’s popularization of this sociotechnical imaginary. In this 1912 piece, the author Richard Maxwell Winans celebrates Tesla’s claim that “the universal application of the wireless transmission of energy will speedily solve vast and far reaching problems in commerce and the industries, and will eventually revolutionize the whole structure of the world’s social and political economy.”56

In this essay—as in “The Problem of Increasing Human Energy” and Tesla’s other promotional articles—the inventor describes himself as especially attuned to nature. His explains that his system of wireless power transmission amplifies the vibrations that already animate the earth; once again, he subordinates any discussion of the energy sources he consumes to amplify these vibrations. More importantly, Tesla describes wires as a constraint—rather than a condition—for power transmission. He explains, “THE full development of a possible twenty-five hundred millions of horsepower from the waterfalls and streams of the United States has been materially handicapped and restricted by the limited area over which hydroelectric energy may be practically transmitted by wire.”57 According to Tesla, the only thing holding America back from its utopian applications of electricity are the very wires that distribute this energy into American homes and businesses. In other words, the dominant sociotechnical imaginary must be misleading, because these wires are limiting rather than promoting truly radical technological development. [End Page 22]

Electricity in Gilman’s Feminist Utopia

The electrical utopians who constructed this alternative sociotechnical imaginary share a core desire to liberate electrical power from the wires and machines that generate and distribute it. By imagining electricity without “its clumsy accessories,” these stories respond to the fear that new technologies would allow the wealthy to benefit from labor-saving devices and to become even more productive than the lower classes who could not afford electrical devices.58 They also mitigate contemporary concerns about smoke pollution and safety. Most importantly, these texts reveal the deeply held belief that electrical power is entirely natural. This notion bolstered the utopian fantasy that advanced societies could use nature itself to enjoy technological conveniences. It also helps to explain the enduring “electric utopianism” that baffled Carey, Quirk, and Hughes. The dream of an unfettered electrical future suggested that Americans did not simply believe in any technological solution to social problems: they put their faith in electricity, specifically, because it allowed them to imagine a world in which they could enjoy the benefits of modern conveniences without the limitations of industrial-age corruption.

To indicate how far reaching this fantasy about electricity could be, consider the resonances between Tesla’s work, these technological utopias, and another utopia that has never been classified as “technological”: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s first utopian novel, Moving the Mountain (1911). Gilman was a lecturer and an advocate for women’s rights. She was acclaimed for her early short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) and known in her day and today as a literary writer, though she preferred to think of herself as a sociologist. Given her public persona, it is unsurprising that the only mention of electricity in contemporary reviews of this novel described the author’s personality: “The electric quality of Mrs. Gilman’s personality pervades the book, and most people who are not satisfied that this world, in its present state, is the best of all possible worlds, will find her plea for at least an attempt to move the mountain both entertaining and suggestive.”59 Yet—in keeping with Harris’s hypothesis—Gilman’s novel used electricity to solve many of the anxieties of modernism that concerned the utopians. Moving the Mountain was set in the near future. Like many other utopias of this era, it depicted [End Page 23] the widespread adoption of electrical power as an important force that could revitalize American bodies and cities.

Gilman’s fascination with electricity differed from that of the other utopians discussed above. She was interested in how new systems like this one could be used to argue for the extended domestic sphere: if electrical power lines, sewers, and water systems connected homes together, she argued, then women should manage these systems.60 In Moving the Mountain, electricity signified more than a solution to the problems of scarcity, pollution, and corruption. It represented an energy that can replenish human vitality, much like Tesla argues in his controversial Century treatise.

In the novel, “electric stimulus”—the act of applying electricity to an ailing body—literally revitalizes a character, Frank Borderson. This process reforms him from a lecherous alcoholic into a healthy citizen. Borderson, now a Professor of the Transmission of Energy, embodies the instrumentalist uses of electricity; this energy literally healed him. But Borderson also explains its metaphorical significance to the outsider narrator, as the two sit by an unassuming electric hearth:

Again we sat silent. I [John] sat looking into the fire; the soft shimmering play of rosy light and warmth with which electricity now gave jewels to our rooms.

Frank followed my eyes.

“That clean, safe, beautiful power was always here, John—but we had not learned of it. The power of wind and water and steam were here—before we learned to use them. All this splendid power of human life was here—only we did not know it.”61

The “splendid power of human life” that Borderson references in this quote echoes the core theme of Moving the Mountain. In this novel, utopia emerges after Americans “wake up” and recognize that their society depletes and devalues the energy of half of its population: women. In this context, the above passage suggests that Americans might find new ways to harness and cultivate women’s energy, just as they found new ways to harness and generate electricity during the late nineteenth century. [End Page 24]

The image of the hearth accentuated this larger argument. While Moving the Mountain discussed many new-and-improved electric devices, it is this up-to-date version of a very old technology that sparks the novel’s most significant reflection.62 In this sense, Gilman invested meaning in the naturalness of electricity, but for a different reason than former utopians. To her, electricity was compelling precisely because it is timeless. When Frank mused, “That clean, safe, beautiful power was always here . . . but we had not learned of it,” he indicated that electricity was more than a clean and useful energy source. In this passage, electricity embodied the hope that humans could still learn much more about the universe, about life itself, and that they could make this knowledge usable outside of existing commercial paradigms.

Gilman did not promote the dream of unfettered electrical transmission specifically. Instead, she built upon the most important element of that fantasy. Gilman extrapolated upon the characterization of electricity as a latent, natural force in order to imagine how other dormant energies might find a similarly salubrious release. Just as journalists used Bellamy’s name as a metonym for electrical progress, utopians like Gilman employed electricity as a metonym for other energies yet to be harnessed—if only the dominant sociotechnical imaginary could be replaced with a different vision for America’s future.


The magic of transmiting power without wires is often lost on us today. Twentieth- and twenty-first-century English speakers have long equated the term wireless with specific communications technology, such as radio and WiFi routers.63 However, the social meanings of “wireless power” are not isomorphic to those of wireless communication, although these divergent fantasies have been conflated in recent studies.64 To Americans who decried the corruption of the first [End Page 25] industrial revolution, transmitting electrical power without wires or heavy machinery signified a new era of democratic or even socialistic energy use, while wireless communications signified the vibratory immateriality of human interconnectedness.

By 1900, when Tesla published his treatise on increasing human energy, the field of electrical expertise was already standardizing, and the “interpretive flexibility” of electrical power systems was starting to close. The analogies that Tesla drew between electricity and human life—commonplace in the Enlightenment era—were marginalized in this period of professionalization.65 By 1911, when Gilman published her own work about electricity and human energy, the market was flooded with hundreds of utopian treatises, novels, and advertisements.66 Even Gilman’s reviewer would situate her well-received novel in the context of all of this noise: “Charlotte Perkins Gilman has added another to the goodly array of signposts that point the road to paradise.”67 For these reasons, their nuanced understanding of electricity was as easy to overlook in their own day as it is in ours.

Nonetheless, there is much to learn by recovering these texts and their construction of a sociotechnical imaginary today. Their strand of utopianism was a counter-narrative distinct from the accepted set of beliefs about technology and society that industry moguls used to promote the dominant imaginary of electrification. It was also more culturally evocative than a reaction to cultural anxieties. Thus Tesla’s inventions, interviews, and essays offer more than self-promotion, and electrical utopias express more than a mix of hope and fear. Tesla and Gilman—along with the electrical utopians and others who saw in electricity a means of and a symbol for power—crafted social meanings of electricity as a natural, unfettered, wireless [End Page 26] energy, a cultural resource that Americans of later generations could draw upon to interpret the electrical technology of their time.

We do not know if Tesla was inspired by reading these stories, if utopian writers were inspired by news of Tesla’s path-breaking experiments, or if Tesla and these writers independently contributed to this sociotechnical imaginary. Nevertheless, they agreed that electrical power could save society from its current ills. More radically, they fostered the belief that electricity embodied a powerful symbol of the potential of human progress that transcended the material realm. Thrown together by critics and journalists, these public figures each contributed to an expansive electric futurism that informed the American cultural imagination well into the twentieth century. As a 1905 article for the Washington Post asserted, “The story of electricity reads like a novel.”68 Fiction informs how Americans understand dramatic technological change, just as electrical development inspires fictional dreams about possible American futures. At this nexus between science fiction and science fact, the fantasy of a wireless post-industrial age kindled American faith in the better future yet to come. The co-mingling of these narratives also underwrites a broader point: that fiction writers and inventors must be studied together—especially if we strive to understand how they co-author the sociotechnical imaginaries that have shaped and continue to shape our competing visions for the future. [End Page 27]

Jennifer L. Lieberman
Univeristy of North Florida
Ronald R. Kline
Cornell University
Jennifer L. Lieberman

Jennifer L. Lieberman is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Florida, where she specializes in American literature and culture; critical race and gender studies; and science and technology studies. Her first book, Power Lines: Electricity in American Life and Letters, 1882–1952, is forthcoming from MIT Press in 2017. Other recent work can be found in History and Technology and in MELUS: Multi-ethnic Literature in the US.

Ronald R. Kline

Ronald R. Kline is Bovay Professor of History and Ethics of Engineering at Cornell University, where he holds an appointment in the Science and Technology Studies Department. He is past president of the Society for the History of Technology, and the author of Steinmetz: Engineer and Socialist (1992); Consumers in the Country: Technology and Social Change in Rural America (2000); and The Cybernetics Moment, Or Why We Call Our Age the Information Age (2015), all with Johns Hopkins University Press.


1. See, e.g., Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988); David E. Nye, Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880–1940 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992); and Robert MacDougall, “The Wire Devils: Pulp Thrillers, the Telephone, and Action at a Distance in the Wiring of a Nation,” American Quarterly 58:3 (2006): 715–741.

2. Kenneth Roemer, The Obsolete Necessity: America in Utopian Writings, 1888–1900 (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1976), p. 111. Considering that a second, frequently cited technology, aluminum, was made using large amounts of electricity and that the third technology, railroads, were often depicted as electrified underscores the prevalence of electricity in the utopian imagination at the time.

3. Howard P. Segal, Technological Utopianism in American Culture, 20th anniversary ed. (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2005).

4. Sheila Jasanoff and Sang-Hyun Kim, “Containing the Atom: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and Nuclear Power in the United States and South Korea,” Minerva 47:2 (2009): 119–146, quote on p. 120.

5. The concept of sociotechnical system comes from Thomas P. Hughes, Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983).

6. Hughes (above, n. 5) David Nye, Image Worlds: Corporate Identities at General Electric (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986); Nye, Electrifying America (above, n. 1); and Harold L. Platt, The Electric City: Energy and the Growth of the Chicago Area, 1880–1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

7. David E. Nye, America as Second Creation: Technology and Narratives of New Beginnings (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), p. 14. Nye discusses particular counter-narratives to the “foundation story” that America was an empty space that was improved by technological development and progress.

8. Jasanoff and Kim, “Containing the Atom” (above, n. 4), p. 123.

9. See Ronald R. Kline and Trevor Pinch, “Users as Agents of Technological Change: The Social Construction of the Automobile in the Rural United States,” Technology and Culture 37:4 (1996): 763–795; and Trevor Pinch and Wiebe Bijker, “The Social Construction of Facts and Artefacts: Or, How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other,” Social Studies of Science 14:3 (1984): 339–441.

10. Tesla gave his first public lecture about transmitting electrical energy wirelessly in 1891, at a meeting of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers held at Columbia College. Electrical experts praised Tesla’s spectacular demonstration of wireless lighting by means of a high-frequency, high-current (Tesla) coil creating an electrostatic field that lit special lamps Tesla held in each hand. See W. Bernard Carlson, Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), pp. 129–142.

11. Joseph Wetzler, “Electric Lamps Fed from Space and Flames That Do Not Consume,” Harper’s Weekly, July 11, 1891, p. 524. Wetzler employs the now-common rhetorical strategy of measuring scientific progress by comparing it favorably to popular science fiction. For a criticism of this cliché, see Colin Milburn, “Modifiable Futures: Science Fiction at the Bench,” Isis 101:3 (2010): 560–569.

12. On Tesla’s detractors, see Chauncey Montgomery McGovern, “The New Wizard of the West,” Pearson’s Magazine, May 1899, pp. 470–475; “Science and Fiction,” Popular Science Monthly 57:7 (1900): 324–326. This letter to the editor signed “Physicist” derides Tesla’s Century article, “The Problem of Increasing Human Energy,” which we discuss below. See also T. C. M. [Thomas Commerford Martin], “Newspaper Science,” Science, November 2, 1900, pp. 684–685; and “Science and Sensationalism,” Public Opinion, December 1, 1898, p. 684, which extracted editorials from The Electrical Engineer and Scientific American. Martin, editor of The Electrical Engineer, vigorously promoted Tesla’s work in the technical and popular press in the mid-1890s, then severely criticized him for not finishing his inventions and for making sensational claims. Earlier, Martin was more favorable to Tesla’s flights of fancy, asking, “Has the Servian poet become inventor, or is the inventor a poet?” See T. C. Martin, “Nikola Tesla,” Century Magazine, February 1894, pp. 582–585. On this issue, see also Carlson, Tesla (above, n. 10), pp. 195–203, 231–237, 309–310; and Marvin, When Old Technologies (above, n. 1), p. 137.

13. Frederic Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (New York: Verso, 2005), p. 11.

14. Just as Wetzler compared Tesla to the “Bellamy school,” writers frequently correlated actual inventions to utopian fictions. See for example, “Bellamy’s Dream Realized,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Feb 26, 1899. This article does mention the musical telephone, an invention that Bellamy did discuss, but it goes on to generalize about Bellamy’s technological vision. See also Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward (Boston: Ticknor and Co: 1888), pp. 158–159. Broadcasting music by telephone antedated Looking Backward and was more common than the Tribune indicated; see Marvin, When Old Technologies (above, n. 1), pp. 211–212.

15. “Electrical utopianism” involves the idea that electricity and the devices it powers will facilitate or incite the development of a perfect society. While “electrical utopians” espoused these beliefs, the concept of “electrical utopianism” was more widespread. See James W. Carey and John J. Quirk’s two-installment article, “The Mythos of the Electronic Revolution,” American Scholar 39:2 (1970): 219–240; and American Scholar 39:3 (1970): 395–424; Thomas P. Hughes, “The Industrial Revolution that Never Came,” American Heritage of Invention and Technology 3:3 (1988): 58–64; and Rosalind Williams, Notes on the Underground: An Essay on Technology, Society, and the Imagination (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), pp. 100–101. Williams’s construction of electrical utopianism differs significantly from the former examples. She treats electricity as an exceptional theme within broader discourses about the human-built world.

16. On the promises of the telegraph, see Paul Gilmore, Aesthetic Materialism: Electricity and American Romanticism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008), pp. 111–122.

17. Segal, Technological Utopianism (above, n. 3), p. 48.

18. Bachelder, A.D. 2050: Electrical Development at Atlantis (San Francisco: Bancroft, 1890), p. 3.

19. Bachelder, A.D. 2050 (above, n. 18), pp. 23–25.

20. Neil Harris, Cultural Excursions: Marketing Appetites and Cultural Tastes in Modern America(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), pp. 150–151.

21. Harris (above, n. 20), pp. 159–163; and Joseph P. Sullivan, “Fearing Electricity: Overhead Wire Panic in New York City,” IEEE Technology and Society Magazine 14:3 (1995): 8–16. Near- and anti-utopian narratives also confronted this fear of poor insulation. Most notably, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) imagines perfect insulation on all wiring, before concluding with a dramatization of intentional electrocution of an attacking army of medieval knights. On the depiction of insulation, wiring, and electricity in this novel, see Jennifer L. Lieberman, “Hank Morgan’s Power Play: Electrical Networks in King Arthur’s Court,” The Mark Twain Annual 8 (2010): 61–75. See also, Thomas Commerford Martin, “Tesla’s Oscillator and Other Inventions,” Century Magazine 49 (1895): 916–933.

22. Solomon Schindler, “The Nationalization of Electricity,” The Arena (1894): 87–90.

23. Bachelder, A.D. 2050 (above, n. 18), p. 25.

24. Martin, “Tesla’s Oscillator” (above, n. 21), p. 917.

25. Tesla filed his first patents for transmitting substantial amounts of power wirelessly, using the atmosphere as the return circuit, on September 2, 1897. See System of Transmission of Electrical Energy, US Patent 645,576, filed on September 2, 1897 and granted March 20, 1900; and Apparatus for Transmission of Electrical Energy, US Patent 649,621, filed on February 19, 1900 and granted May 15, 1900. He filed a broader patent shortly after completing his experiments on wireless power in Colorado Springs, on May 16, 1900: Art of Transmitting Electrical Energy through the Natural Mediums, US Patent 787,412, granted April 18, 1905. On the Colorado Springs experiments, see Carlson, Tesla (above, n. 10), pp. 262–301.

26. Carlson, Tesla (above, n. 10), pp. 214–330.

27. On this fantasy, see Leo Marx, Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964); see also John F. Kasson, Civilizing the Machine: Technological and Republican Values in America, 1776–1900 (New York: Viking, 1976), pp. 183–234.

28. Edward Bellamy, Equality, 3rd ed. (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1898): pp. 69, 281.

29. Bellamy, Equality (above, n. 28), p. 271.

30. Bellamy, Equality (above, n. 28), p. 69.

31. Bellamy, Equality (above, n. 28), p. 271.

32. L. M. Coffman, “New Books: Altruism Gone Mad,” The Interior, October 7, 1897, n.p.

33. On this aspect of technological determinism, which dates to the early twentieth century in the United States, see Leo Marx, “The Idea of ‘Technology’ and Postmodern Pessimism,” in Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism, ed. Merritt Roe Smith and Leo Marx (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994), pp. 237–257.

34. Arthur Bird, Looking Forward: A Dream of the United States of the Americas in 1999 (Utica, NY: L. C. Childs, 1899), p. 116.

35. Bird, Looking Forward (above, n. 34), p. 116.

36. Bird, Looking Forward (above, n. 34), p. 52. Coincidentally, Tesla did imagine in 1916 a system of propelling airplanes by transmitting wireless electrical power to them. See Carlson, Tesla (above, n. 10), p. 369.

37. Bird, Looking Forward (above, n. 34), p. 130; see also pp. 132, 134.

38. Bird’s depiction exemplifies works of the time that emphasize natural sources for generating electricity. See Robert Grimshaw, Fifty-Years Hence (New York: Practical Publishing, 1892), p. 51; King Camp Gillette, Human Drift (1894; repr. New York: Scholars Facsimiles and Reprints, 1976), p. 89; Solomon Schindler, Young West (Boston: Arena, 1894), p. 89; Ignatius Donnelly, Caesar’s Column (1890; repr., Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960)—a partial dystopia—uses the magnetic force of the earth to power lights; Chauncey Thomas, Crystal Button (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1891), p. 50. For an extended analysis on Gillette, see Kenneth Roemer, “Technology, Corporation, and Utopia: Gilette’s Unity Regained,” Technology and Culture 26:3 (July 1985): 560–570.

39. Bird, Looking Forward (above, n. 34), p. 130.

40. Nikola Tesla, System of Transmission of Electrical Energy, US Patent 649,621 (above, n. 25).

41. Taylor, Intermere (Columbus, OH: XX Century Publishing Company, 1901), p. 105.

42. See Nikola Tesla, My Inventions and Other Writings (1919; repr. with introduction by Samantha Hunt, New York: Penguin Books, 2011), pp. 55–56.

43. Taylor, Intermere (above, n. 41), pp. 130–135.

44. The technological utopians mentioned above, especially Bird, frame electrical progress as an American pursuit. Wetzler’s account of Tesla’s Columbia presentation makes a similar claim: “The honors in electrical discovery and invention have hitherto been pretty evenly divided among the nations, but of late America has bid fair to leave little for the rest of the world to own or cultivate in this wonderful new domain of the arts and sciences” (“Electric Lamps” [above, n. 11], p. 524).

45. Taylor, Intermere (above, n. 41), p. 128.

46. Carlson, Tesla (above, n. 10), p. 347, explodes a popular myth that J. P. Morgan stopped funding Tesla’s experiments at Wardenclyffe because his system would provide free electrical power, by showing that Tesla intended to make money for himself and Morgan by manufacturing and selling the receivers to tap into the wireless power.

47. Taylor, Intermere (above, n. 41), pp. 69–70.

48. Carlson, Tesla (above, n. 10), p. 305.

49. Tesla, “The Problem of Increasing Human Energy,” The Century 60:2 (June 1900): 175–211, quote on p. 207.

50. Tesla, “The Problem of Increasing Human Energy” (above, n. 49), p. 193.

51. “Tesla’s Discovery Nobel Prize Winner: Transmission of Energy without Wires, Which Affects Present-Day Problems,” New York Times, November 7, 1915.

52. “Tesla’s Discovery” (above, n. 51) (emphasis added).

53. Tesla explains that he thinks the consumption of any material is “barbarous.” See Tesla, “The Problem of Increasing Human Energy” (above, n. 49), p. 197.

54. In other contexts, Tesla emphasized the improved efficiency of transmitting power wirelessly. See Carlson, Tesla (above, n. 10), p. 332.

55. Tesla, My Inventions (above, n. 42), p. 56.

56. Richard Maxwell Winans, “Wireless Power,” New York Tribune Sunday Magazine, March 3, 1912, pp. 3–4, 15–16.

57. Winans, “Wireless Power” (above, n. 56), p. 3.

58. Hughes’s “The Industrialization that Never Came” (above, n. 15) argues that these concerns about class were specifically associated with fears of the centralization of power generation.

59. “A Baby Utopia: Mrs. Gilman Invents One that Has an Un-Wells-Like Hominess,” New York Times, February 4, 1912.

60. For more on Gilman’s utopianism and her engagement with electrical themes, see Jennifer L. Lieberman, Power Lines: Electricity in American Life and Letters, 1882–1952 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017). On the feminist contribution to technological utopias, see Howard P. Segal, “The First Feminist Technological Utopia,” in Segal, Future Imperfect: The Mixed Blessings of Technology in America (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994), pp. 117–125.

61. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Moving the Mountain (New York: Charlton Company, 1911), pp. 262–263.

62. Notably, the “clean, well-lighted hearth” would become a central theme of General Electric advertisements almost two decades after Gilman published Moving the Mountain. See David E. Nye’s discussion of this campaign in his Electrifying America (above, n. 1), pp. 238–286.

63. On contemporary ideas about wireless power and communication, see Adrian Mackenzie, Wirelessness: Radical Empiricism in Network Cultures (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010).

64. On the conflation of wireless communication and wireless power, see Ghislain Thibault, “The Automatization of Nikola Tesla: Thinking Invention in the Late Nineteenth Century,” Configurations 21:1 (2013): 49. This paper focuses specifically on the fantasy of wireless electrical power transmission. A large body of work already examines fantasies about wireless communication. On the history of wireless communication, see for example, Susan Douglas, Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination (New York: Random House, 1999). On this theme in literature and science, see Laura Otis, Networking: Communicating with Bodies and Machines in the Nineteenth Century (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001), pp. 180–219.

65. On early American electrical displays, see James Delbourgo, A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders: Electricity and Enlightenment in Early America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).

66. On electrical advertisements, see Roland Marchand, Creating the Corporate Soul: The Rise of Public Relations and Corporate Imagery in American Big Business (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998): 130–164; and David E. Nye, Image Worlds: Corporate Identities at General Electric, 1890–1930 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985).

67. “A Baby Utopia” (above, n. 59).

68. “Marvels of Electricity Excel Magic,” Washington Post, November 26, 1905. Such articles play on fantasies of the technological and electrical sublime. For more on this subject, see David E. Nye, The American Technological Sublime (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994).

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.