This is the website for a project called “Electrocultures: Electricity Wild and Domestic”. It is based on an undergraduate-led research course run by UCL’s department of Science and Technology Studies, set up by Professor Hasok Chang, and is now taught by Dr Chiara Ambrosio.
The course is about episodes of invention and discovery from the history of electricity. It allows students to explore primary materials and to forge a path through the secondary literature, finding the questions – both historical and philosophical - which matter most to them. This presentation gives a simple introduction to the history of electricity and some of the questions which past students have started to ask. It is intended mainly for students who are planning to carry these past projects on.
The presentation has four sections. The first, themes, identifies some of the major themes in the historical and philosophical study of electricity. The second, approaches, suggests some of the perspectives from which these histories have been written. The third, periodisation, suggests some of the ways in which we might construct a timeline of major electrical events. Finally, electrocultures, introduces the eight projects which have been developed so far. 1. Themes
“I sing the Body Electric”, wrote the American poet Walt Whitman in 1855. Christopher Smart, in the 1760s, claimed of his cat Jeoffrey that ‘he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.’ Human and animal bodies are electric: nerve impulses are conducted through electrical synapses; frog’s legs can be made to twitch through electrical stimulaton; at certain times doctors have strongly believed in the therapeutic potential of electrotherapy; illnesses like epilepsy which were long believed to have had a supernatural origin were recognised from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards as electrical conditions. But how does an understanding of a body as electric affect an individual’s experience of it, or the way in which it is treated by medicine? Are electrical bodies a kind of machine (this was a terror for many in the early nineteenth century)?
Electricity has long been a subject of entertainment and display, from the courtly discharges of the eighteenth century to the electrical showmen of the nineteenth, to the showrooms of luxury goods of the twentieth. The inventor Thomas Edison electrocuted an elephant as part of his campaign in favour of direct current. The philosopher of science Gaston Bachelard wrote in response to the polite entertainment that was not the sociable public spectacle of display but ‘the BORING science of an Ampere’ before the science could really proceed. Natural Electricity
Natural electricity is spectacularly visible in lightning and pervasive in ionised air. Robespierre, architect of the terror after the French Revolution, originally made his reputation in court cases about the installation of lightning rods. During the 1820s in particular an enormous range of accounts were given of the natural effect of electricity: it was speculated that electricity shaped the earth. Most of the great late nineteenth-century scientists with interests in electricity wanted to find ways to measure atmospheric electricity and invented ingenious ways to do this. The great physicist CTR Wilson used these measuring devices to build a model of a thunder-cloud. Electrocultures: Electricity Wild and Domestic INTRODUCTION INTRODUCTION THEMES: 1. ELECTRICAL BODIES THEMES 2: ELECTRICAL DISPLAY THEMES 3: NATURAL ELECTRICITY 2. APPROACHES 3. PERIODISATIONS 4. ELECTROCULTURES Alex Mayr: How Faraday stole Maxwell's Thunder Belinda Lee: Oramics Revisited Naresh Balsingham: Electro-stimulation of the cortex Cleo Heslop: Electrical Display in the early nineteenth century Bella Eacott: trust and electricity meters Carys Lewis: Electricity and Epilepsy Hitzig and …’s experiment of … is remembered as one of the great achievements of neurophysiology in the mid-nineteenth century, proving through electro-stimulation the localisation of cortical function. But it was resisted by many of their contemporaries. Why was this? In the 1830s, for the first time, electrical equipment started to be displayed in front of large paying audiences in venues like the Polytechnic Institute London. What apparatus was shown and what can this tell us about the identity and goals of the electrical demonstrators? The introduction of electricity to households also required ways of charging for it, which were both reliable for companies and trustworthy for consumers. What were these meters, and what can they tell us about the history of the domestication of electricity? Communities
Like all scientific phenomena, electrical science has been investigated by, and electrical techniques been employed by, groups and individuals acting within particular social contexts. Some were elite scientists, associated with the highest academies in the land; others were workers - from instrument-makers to electricians; still others were outsiders. Others straddled all these groups at once. For example, the doctor Robert Becker, author of The Body Electric and a pioneer of electro-regeneration, was at once a researcher in an elite American medical school and an advocate of the harm caused by electro-magnetic power-lines. He testified about his concerns about these risks before Congress, and came to believe that funding agencies were biased against him; with the result (he claimed) that all his work lost funding. According to this perspective, not only his own professional standing but the whole fate of a field of knowledge depended on his position within the broader electrical community.
Historians of science have argued that the community which an electrical practitioner belongs to may affect his or her beliefs about electrical science. You can read more about some particular communities of practice in Naresh and Clio’s projects. Morals of Measurement (Perils of Precision)
Development of many electrical systems and theories required precise and exacting measurement, which, particularly from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, required laboratory settings, standard units, and precise instrumentation. For any of these things to work – as historians have emphasised – relationships of trust were needed, and particular beliefs of objectivity had to be valued. In the introduction of new technologies into households, too, consumers had to be taught to trust the new invention, and that it could be a familiar and not an alien presence in their home. It was not enough to harness the lightning; it also had to be domesticated. The contortions of publicity through which electrical companies made their wares acceptable to consumers are the subject of Graeme Gooday’s book Domesticating Electricity; you can also read more about them in Bella’s project. Technological System Building
The development of electrical technologies did not just involve discrete gadgets like vacuum cleaners and microwaves; it also needed a wholesale technological system, involving supply and distribution. These systems were some of the most massive technological projects of the twentieth century – from the electrification of the Soviet Union, to the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s, to the huge dams which are still being constructed in China today. The concept of ‘technological system building’, and the particular dynamics it involves, have been developed in the work of Thomas Hughes. Material Culture
You do not need to walk along the decaying corridors and still-gleaming dials of the long-disused Battersea Power Station to know that the production, distribution and investigation of electricity requires a massive material infrastructure, and leaves behind: from pylons and power-plants to plug sockets to light-bulbs, diodes, old computers and televisions, ancient ECG monitors, obsolete cables and electric toothbrushes which no longer brush...The question of how much of this electrical bric-a-brac should be conserved and what kind of evidence it can provide us of past practices is a central concern both of this course and of museum displays which Working Worlds
Scientific practice does not occur in isolation in a vacuum or in isolation from the other work performed within a given society. In the history of electricity theoretical studies have fed into and drawn upon the difficulties involved in getting particular technologies to work: from lightning rods, to telegraph cables, to transistors. The historian of science Peter Galison has even argued that Einstein’s concepts of relativity were crucially shaped by his experience of dealing with electrically coordinated railway station clocks in the patent office in Berne which was his first adult job. According to Jon Agar, these kinds of ‘working world’ typically pose the key problems which given sciences aim to solve. Approaching questions in the history of electricity through the concept of working worlds enables us to move back and forth between academic or laboratory settings and the locations in which knowledge is applied. Has knowledge of electricity always been connected to attempts to make things work? Theory and Practice
The development of electrical technologies and knowledge of electrical science requires theories, of course - but also practical tinkering. How these two aspects have been related over the course of history is a complex question: an electrician is not the same thing as a theoretical physicist. Historians have learned to ask about the practices embedded within theories, as well as the ways in which all theoretical knowledge relies on practical skills of manipulation, visualisation and mental-modelling. How 'material-laden' such work has to be is an additional complication. Controversies
Historians of science like episodes which involve scientific controversies because they force historical actors to state explicitly their assumptions about the nature of knowledge and the composition of material things - questions which often remain implicit. Philosophical Accounts
Unlike many historians of science, philosophers claim not only to be interested in what happened in the past but also in the question of what good knowledge was: what was reasonable for people in the past to believe or reject, given the evidence and methodologies available to them, and what these can tell us about the ontological nature of the world, and the epistemology of human knowledge. These philosophical accounts may use case-studies in the history of electricity to make arguments within philosophical debates – about the ‘reality’ of entities such as the electron, for example, or what field trials in electrocultural experiments can teach us about scientific pluralism. TheySee the full transcript