If you’re bothering to read this, you’re reading it on a computer, and if you’re using a computer, you probably take electricity for granted. Unless you’ve come across some faulty wiring or jammed a fork into a live toaster, you probably need to be reminded how terrifying electricity can be. For centuries, it has been a reliable source of awe, wonder and fear, and I am fascinated by the people who tested it, tamed it and made it into the magic that keeps our society humming.
One of the greats of the field didn’t even start out as a scientist. The inventor of the telegraph began his career as a portrait artist, with the dream of becoming one of America’s great painters. The telegraph was something he puttered around with absentmindedly until he realized what he had. Lightning Man tells how Samuel Morse struggled with patent wars, business rivals and some unfortunate political positions to become the renowned name you were forced to memorize in middle school.
Once people started experimenting with practical ways to use the new power, the public at large started worrying. Dark Light explains a number of the misconceptions regarding what electricity could and could not do. At the same time that people were afraid of using electricity to light their homes, they gladly sent electrical currents through their bodies in the hopes of curing whatever ailed them.
The vicious competition between electricity providers didn’t help. AC/DC recalls the struggle between Edison and Westinghouse to decide whether DC or AC would power the nation, each side laboring to prove the dangers of their opponent’s power plan.
The next time you want to stick your finger into a wall socket, just remember all the trouble people went through to give you such an effective way to hurt yourself.