Volts From The Blue
A talk given at the day conference Electra: Electricity in Culture at the Royal Institution, 22 May 2004.
Whenever she passed under an electricity pylon, my mother would hold her breath. I knew enough in my scornful thirteen-year-old superbia to be able to tell her how quaintly crazy such thinking was, just as crazy as that of her mother, who thought that one should never leave unoccupied plugs switched on overnight lest the electricity should leak out, and spread across the room at ankle level, in a deadly, prickly, miasmatic carpet. For did not, does not every schoolboy know that electricity is force, not stuff, the nature of which is to dart undeflectably to its goal, following the line of least resistance and at the speed of light, not to diffuse or linger malignantly in clouds? Electricity was either stored, as in batteries or live wires, or it was in vehement motion. It was either absolutely on, or entirely off. It was positive or negative. It could never just loiter, lurk, or drift about. One might see in this near-miss of, if not exactly minds, then at least of mentalities, an ancient and deep-rooted distinction between man’s belief in his power to jump the tracks, to vault across spaces, and woman’s role as the inert space itself, across or beyond which it is man’s destiny incontinently to leap, the blue from which he bolts. Luckily I was never called upon to explain how it is that electricity also forms fields of force, which, though you might not be able to breathe them in, or obviate their action by holding your breath, certainly do seem to occupy and constitute space rather than traversing it.
Our elective, or electric affinities have their historical correlatives. I want in what follows to trace the evolution of the imagination of electricity, or one strain of it, through the ways in which the notion of electricity was exhibited to the mind, from the earliest periods through to the middle of the eighteenth century. I will follow out the movement from a diffuse conception of electricity as itself a kind of diffusive matter to the more precise accounts of the nature and effects of electricity, accounts which both made it more actual and visible in its embodiments and effects and yet also abstracted it into a kind of algebra or geometry. But I will also consider the ways in which geometry gives way, during the very nineteenth century which seemed to have reduced it to lines of force, to conceptions which coil back into earlier effluvial and ethereal imaginations of electricity.
Because electricity is visible only in its effects, it tended to be associated with and understood in terms of the varied airs, vapours, ethers and effluvia which occupied the imagination of natural scientists from the classical period onwards. It is with the patchy, spasmodic and never-quite completed surpassing of this conception of electricity – as it might be called, the pneumatic complexion of the electrical – that I will be occupied in what follows. And where better to speak of the odd cooperations of gas and electrics than on the very spot where the Royal Institution’s two brightest sparks, Humphrey Davy and Michael Faraday, demonstrated the workings of these two matters?
Most early theories of electricity depended on the notion of effluvia, or streams of tiny corpuscles released by the friction or attrition of electrical substances.. The earliest and for some time the most influential of these theories was set out in chapter II.2, on the attractive power of amber, in the De Magnete (1600) of William Gilbert, to whom belongs the credit of isolating the study of electricity as a distinct force and scientific topic. (Roller 1959, 127). Gilbert relies upon the Aristotelian explanation devised to account for the winds, namely that they are formed from moist exhalations drawn up from the earth by the sun’s heat. One must recall here that early theories of the elements saw moistness and dryness as qualities encompassing more than relative degrees of liquidity; this is what made it possible to distinguish, puzzlingly in modern terms, between dry and moist humours. Dryness meant a tendency towards hardness or compaction, and moistness the tendency towards dissolution or evaporation. This theory does not make as strong a distinction as we might between liquidity and gaseousness, both being forms of fluidity. Gilbert saw the earth as containing a succus , or juice, which could be drawn out of it by the sun, forming both water and air. Amber is regarded as a concreted form of this humid matter. Along with ‘all bodies that derive their origin principally from humors, and that are firmly concreted, and that retain the appearance and property of fluid in a firm, solid mass’ (Gilbert 1893, 84), it has the electric power of attracting. This power comes from ‘something imperceptible for us flowing out of the substance into the ambient air’ (Gilbert 1893, 87). Gilbert reminds himself that that Plutarch, in his Quaestiones Platonicae, sees ‘something flame-like, or having the nature of the breath’ in amber (Gilbert 1893, 87), but observes that such effluvia ‘are not a breath, for, when given forth, they do not exert propelling force; for they flow forth without any perceptible resistance, and reach bodies’ (Gilbert 1893, 89) And yet these attenuated vapours are also a kind of ‘breath’, as they ‘lay hold of the bodies with which they unite, enfold them, as it were, in their arms, and bring them into union with the electrics’ (Gilbert 1893, 95):
A breath, then, proceeding from a body that is a concretion of moisture or aqueous fluid, reaches the body that is to be attracted, and as soon as it is reached it is united to the attracting electric; and a body in touch with another body by the particular radiation of effluvia makes of the two one: united, the two come into most intimate harmony, and that is what is meant by attraction. (Gilbert 1893, 91)
Gilbert is at pains to distinguish this breath from ordinary air, which is much denser. It is for this reason that moist atmospheres and cloudy days inhibit electrical action: for ‘in thick weather light objects are harder to move, as also (and rather) because the effluvia are stifled, and the surface of the rubbed body is affected by the vaporous air, and the effluvia are stopped at their very origin’ (Gilbert 1893, 91). Nevertheless, Gilbert sees strong resemblances between the attractive powers of ordinary air (this being how he explains gravitation) and the moist but subtle effluvium that is responsible for electric attraction:
All bodies are united and, as it were, cemented together by moisture, and hence a wet body on touching another body attracts it if the other body be small; and wet bodies on the surface of water attract wet bodies. But the peculiar effluvia of electrics, being the subtilest matter of solute moisture, attract corpuscles. Air, too (the earth’s universal effluvium), unites parts that are separated, and the earth, by means of the air, brings back bodies to itself; else bodies would not so eagerly seek the earth from heights. The electric effluvia differ much from air, and as air is the earth’s effluvium, so electric bodies have their own distinctive effluvia; and each peculiar effluvium has its own individual power of leading to union, its own movement to its origin, to its fount, and to the body that emits the effluvium. (Gilbert 1893, 92)
Other accounts quickly enlisted the air more directly in the operations of electricity, suggesting for example that the thin electrical effluvium created an area of low pressure around the electric, upon which the surrounding denser air could press, thereby conveying light objects to the electric. (Heilbron 1979, 191-2) From this developed the notion that the electric force was best thought of as an atmosphere, surrounding, or produced by electric objects (by which is meant nonconductors which produce static electric charges when rubbed).
The notion of an electric atmosphere was still being confidently reported in 1745, when Albrecht von Haller published his synoptic account of recent experiments in and theories of electricity. ‘This electric atmosphere, when produced from very large globes, extends itself four or five feet in circumference, and agitates leaf gold at the distance: I call it an atmosphere, because it really is so, as appears by the smell’ (Haller 1745, 197). He also reported the distinction made by Georg Bose between the male fire, which is attended with crackling, and has a considerable force, and the female fire, which is a luminous emanation, without violence or percussion’ (Haller 1745, 195). Women were in fact thought to be altogether more atmospheric than men. Jean Nollet, the leading French authority on electricity in the mid-1740s, used to demonstrate the speed of electricity and its ready transmissability through the human body by passing shocks along lines of human subjects. He once electrified a daisy-chain of 200 Carthusian monks in this way. Women were suspected on being liable to arrest or deflect the longitudinal surge of the electricity. In one experimental line of electrified men, the current came repeatedly to a standstill at the same person, whose manhood came as a result into embarrassing question. His reputation was only restored when experiments on accredited castrati failed to show any difference in their conductivities. The maligned man had in fact been standing in a puddle (as I think I should have been under the circumstances) which had discharged the current (Heilbron 1979, 320).
At the same moment, the German J.H. Winkler described how ‘the surface of an electrified body is surrounded by a subtle matter in movement’ (Winkler 1744, 79), explaining that ‘[b]y the ‘atmosphere’ of a body is to be understood a fluid matter which is much subtler than the body itself and, joined with it, surrounds its complete surface’ (Winkler 1744, 102). Meanwhile, in England, Benjamin Wilson was venturing an explanation of electricity in terms of the suggestions thrown out by Newton at the end of his Optics regarding the existence of an aether. For Wilson, as for many others, electricity was to be thought of as a subtle form or state of matter, exhibiting gaseous properties of propagation:
The electric matter is always endeavouring to pass into the largest bodies when accumulated until it is equally distributed every where, and, as in the experiment of the feathers, an elastic atmosphere surrounds them, so it may be conceived to surround all other bodies… THIS ELECTRIC MATTER seems to be composed of aether, light, and other particles of matter that are of a sulphurous nature. (Wilson 1746, 20, 25 )
The strangeness of electricity seemed to be that it was at once ‘so moveable and incapable of rest’ (Haller 1745, 193), and yet also capable of being arrested if deprived of a suitable conductor, for example by the air; this latter had been demonstrated most dramatically by the experiments of Stephen Gray in the early 170s, who had electrified charity boys, an ample supply of which was furnished by Charterhouse where he was resident, hung from silken cords in mid-air. The sense that electricity belongs naturally to ‘the more hidden properties of the air’ (Heilbron 1979, 243) is borne out by the fact that so many demonstrations and depictions showed electrified subjects who were themselves suspended in mid-air (even though the reason for this is actually to use the air as insulation). Charles Burney, the father of the novelist Fanny, recorded in 1775 his terror at being caught in a thunderstorm in Bavaria, and his wish for a bed off the ground, so he might sleep in safety ‘suspended by silk cords in the middle of a large room’ (quoted Cohen 1990, 125).
Breaking the Thunder
Two things happened in the mid-1740s to put pressure on the diea of electrical atmospheres. First of all, in 1745 and 1746, Ewald Jürgen von Kleist and Pieter von Musschenbroek separately discovered the properties of what was called by Jean Nollet the Leyden Jar, which for the first time allowed electrical charge to be stored. Experimenters and demonstrators quickly discovered that the jars could be connected in series to form batteries which amplified their stored potential. As a consequence, and for the first time, the shocks delivered by electricity became powerful enough to injure and even to endanger life. The other important development of the 1740s was Benjamin Franklin’s practical demonstration of the long-suspected identity of lightning and electricity. His work depended upon the capacity of pointed conductors to attract the charge from highly-charged clouds passing overhead.
Franklin’s experiments were much-imitated but also gave rise to disputes. In France, there were those who felt that to draw away the Lord’s vengeful lightning stroke was an act of impious presumption. The focus was on church steeples, which had traditionally been extremely vulnerable to lightning strikes, despite the fact that they were the means of the ringing of bells that was believed to be the most effective defence against thunderstorms. Bells were sometimes inscribed with formulae that summarised the different aspects of their vocation: ‘Deum laudo, vivos voco, mortuos plango, fulgura frango’ (‘I glorify God, call the living, mourn the dead, break the thunder’), or ‘Men’s death I tell by doleful knell/Lightning and thunder, I break asunder’. There seem to have been several determinants for this belief in the power of bell-ringing to disperse thunderstorms. I. Bernard Cohen suggests that there may be an element of sympathetic magic involved, ‘in that storms, which are noisy disturbances in the atmosphere (produced by demons or the “powers of the air”), are supposed to be counteracted by a ritual producing a similar noisy disturbance’ (Cohen 1990, 245n.7). This may be so, though there may also be a more specific reference to beliefs about the nature of demonically troubled air. For this apotropaic campanology resembles the practice of discharging pistols in order to clear the contagious miasmas of the plague, and depends upon a physical explanation: as Francis Bacon suggested in his ‘Natural History’, the sound of the bells brings about a ‘concussion of the air’, which dissipates the thunder-charged cloud.
This belongs to the long-lived medieval and early modern belief in the capacity of air to become thickened and sluggish and the deleterious effects thereof. For much of this period, digestion, disease and diet theories were held together by a cultural phenomenology of ideal texture. Health meant the capacity to maintain a balance between form and fluidity, with a surprisingly high value being given to the necessity for the free flow of air through the human and social body. If there was widespread concern with the menacing powers of bad air, this was not on the whole because of the dissolving effects of air upon the solid human frame. Rather it was because bad air was thought of as unnaturally dense and therefore obstructive. Although humoral medicine emphasised the balance of different qualities, in practice, values of flow and free movement – of air, blood, urine and perspiration – were regarded as more important than the values of solidity, and you were more likely to become ill through blockage, swelling and corruption than through thinning or dilution of the frame. There was believed to be a strong connection between heavy and thunderous weather and melancholic dispositions, in that both resulted in and depended upon bad air, which is to say, air betrayed into menacing density. The highly-charged thunderclouds of the early modern imagination represented just this kind of thickened air, and sound, which is both borne upon the air and diffused through it, may have seemed like a way of restoring the ideal lightness and fluency to which the air ought to be heir. One paradox here is that electricity was frequently identified as an effluvium which was not only thinner than solid corporeal bodies, and therefore able to permeate and impregnate them with ease, but also infinitely more subtle than ordinary air.
The principal outcome of the Leyden Jar and Franklin’s lightning conductor was a strongly marked sense of the dichotomy between nebulous or atmospheric electricity, as embodied in Franklin’s highly-charged thundercloud, and the rapid power of the shock, as embodied in the lightning bolt. One of the earliest appearances of the word ‘electric’ in literary writing is in 1749, in a poem by Henry Jones, the Irish ‘bricklayer-poet’, celebrating a scientific demonstration. His ‘Philosophy: A Poem’ turns on just this contrast between the cloud and the spark:
The ambient Atmosphere, embracing all,
The wide Circumf’rence of this circling Ball,
Saving each vital Frame from crushing Fate;
For inward Act sustains external Weight:
The Vehicle of Life to those that breathe
On solid Land, or liquid Waves beneath,
The Universe pervading, filling Space,
And, like its Maker, unconfin’d to Place. (Jones 1749, 15)
This is answered by the artificial lightning produced in the demonstration, which stands for the speed of thought, understanding and genius, as they are instantaneously, and space-defyingly transmitted to the audience’s apprehension:
When, quick as Thought, th’Electric Vigour springs
Swifter than Lightning on its rapid Wings;
A Flight so instant, to no Space confin’d,
Eludes Ideas, and outstrips the Mind.
Lo! to the Brain the bright Effluvium flies;
Glows in the Heart, and flashes from the Eyes. (Jones 1749, 16)
That there is more than intellectual quickening involved is suggested by the secondary transmission of the ‘ecstatic blaze':
Here, with new Raptures, the fond Youth shall gaze,
With Joy transmitting the ecstatic Blaze.
See! the coy Nymph partake his Flame by Turns,
See, like a Seraph, how she smiles and burns! (Jones 1749, 16)
The dichotomy between atmosphere and spark, fuzzy and forked, can be thought of as announcing a shift from electrostatics to electrical current. From this point on, the turbulent effluvia of the air came progressively to be reduced to a kind of sharp-edged geometrics. One can also find something of this concern with the geometry of air in the strange controversy that grew up in the 1750s regarding the relative merits of pointed and rounded conductors. Franklin had insisted that the more pointed the conductor, the more effective it was at drawing off electrical charges from the atmosphere. Franklin’s Royal Society rival, Benjamin Wilson, thought that Franklin’s conductors were in fact dangerously effective, and attracted lightning where it might not otherwise strike, and so recommended blunt or rounded conductors, buried beneath the roofs of buildings rather than protruding from them. Wilson put on a huge demonstration at the Pantheon in 1777 and won over George III, who promptly changed all the lightning conductors in the Palace (Wilson 1778; Fara 2002, 78-81; Heilbron. 78-81). Though one may indeed be able to detect significant differences in the effectiveness of sharp or blunt conductors when one’s representation of a charged cloud is a swab of cotton wool in a brass pan, on the scale of a cloud several miles across, it makes no difference at all. Perhaps the importance lies rather in the setting of the geometry of point and line against the diffuse topology of the cloud. It is as though nature, in the form of electricity, were being schooled by the rod of man.
The electrical geometry of the air is given an aesthetic coloration by Archibald Alison, who, in 1790, drew the contrast between the different kinds of motion characteristic of cloud and lightning into a discussion of the sublime and the beautiful. In general, he wrote, slow, curved motions were merely beautiful, whereas, rapid motion in a straight line was sublime. However, where slow motion involves a body of great magnitude, like a ‘first rate Man of War’ or ‘a great Balloon’ or a towering cloud, then sublime emotions can be stirred (Alison 1790, 407). Electricity is similarly anomalous: ‘Motion in angular Lines, is in general, productive of an Emotion of discontent, rather than of any Emotion either of Sublimity or Beauty. Yet the Motion of Lightning, which is commonly of this kind, is strikingly Sublime. The same appearance in electrical Experiments, is beautiful’ (Alison 1790, 408).
After the revolutions of the later eighteenth century, a more romantic temper was inclined to identify the surcharged clouds, not with nature, but with the malignity of established power. Franklin’s republicanism and, in particular his role, later in life, in drafting the American Declaration of Independence, secured for him a place as culture-hero in Erasmus Darwin’s extraordinary naturalist poem The Botanic Garden of 1799. Where consecrated bells bluntly pulverised the diabolic air, Franklin’s rod is here thought of as pricking the bubble of tyranny and superstition.
Bright Amber shines on his electric throne,
And adds ethereal lustres to his own.
—Led by the phosphor-light, with daring tread
Immortal Franklin sought the fiery bed;
Where, nursed in night, incumbent Tempest shrouds
His embryon Thunders in circumfluent clouds,
Besieged with iron points their airy cell,
And pierced the monsters slumbering in the shell.
“So, born on sounding pinions to the West,
When Tyrant-Power had built his eagle nest;
While from his eyry shriek’d the famish’d brood,
Clenched their sharp claws, and champ’d their beaks for blood,
Immortal Franklin watch’d the callow crew,
And stabb’d the struggling Vampires, ere they flew.
—The patriot-flame with quick contagion ran,
Hill lighted hill, and man electrised man (Darwin 1799, 104-5; Canto II.6)
Electricity developed a political ambivalence to match its new two-sidedness. It stood both for the Promethean power of the fire-stealing individual genius, and for the democratic currents of fellow feeling. It signified both the hic-et-nunc of individual revolutionary decision and the ubiquity of communicated sympathy. as Alison Winter has suggested, the figure of the musical conductor, drawing and directing the energy of the orchestra, belongs to this electrical economy (Wnter 1998, 309-20).
At the junction of power and pleasure was the human body, and the medicine that, increasingly systematically ministered to it. Medical applications of electricity began to multiply during the second half of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Many of these, such as the use of electricity in the treatment of paralysis, stammering, gallstones and depression of spirits, seemed to depend upon the powers of electricity to loosen, unbind or encourage flow. (Late in the nineteenth century, Nikola Tesla, of whom we will hear more later, invented an electrically-powered vibrating platform for the treatment of constipation, and afforded much delighted relief to a costive Mark Twain.) In England, such applications were encouraged by Newton’s suggestions, thrown out in a number of queries at the end of the 1713 edition of his Optics, that the animal spirits or nervous fluid which communicated impulses from the brain to the muscles might be related to a subtle ethereal or electrical fluid, which constituted a kind of universal medium in the universe. Hints such as these, combined with the strong inherited tendency to think of electricity as a vapour or effluvium, made it easy to see electricity as a mediator between microcosm and macrocosm, and as the principle of life itself. In America, where electrotherapies formed a strong field of what has been called ‘electrical humanitarianism’ (Delbourgo 2001), Dr. T. Gale wrote in his Electricity, Or Etherial Fire, Considered (1802) that electricity was a kind of universal atmosphere, which all living creatures inhabited and respired. Some years later, Michael La Beaume prepared the readers of his guide to the medical uses of electricity with an interesting account of Franklin’s taming of electricity:
The great Franklin, to inspire confidence in the powers of this elementary fire – to trace the origin of its high descent, and to shield the defenceless from its unrestrained and dreadful contact, sent up a kite to the clouds and fearlessly brought down the lightning within his grasp. He wrapt himself in its diffusive rays, and proved to the world the perfect safety to be found in itsexpansive and diluted form. (La Beaume 1820, 40)
The benignly ‘diffusive rays’ of the electricity evoked here, along with its ‘expansive and diluted form’ return it to the atmospheric condition that Franklin in fact transformed. La Beaume emphasises the sensory nature of electricity throughout his book, with a particular emphasis upon its taste and smell. Indeed, the latter seems to clinch his version of the often-repeated claim that electrical ether is the soul of the universe:
The smell of the electric air, is phosphoreous and sulphureous – these two properties, added to the others, complete the attributes of that material soul, which inhabits this system or world, and is to its motions and revolutions, what the heart is to the human frame – “the well-spring of Life,” and the vital source of action and re-action. (La Beaume 1820, 46)
The strong association between electricity and the diffusive powers of aroma had been secured much earlier, in the work of the Venetian physician Gianfrancesco Pivati, who asserted that, if odorous medicinal substances were put into glass vessels, and those vessels then electrified, the odour would transpire through the glass, encouraged, perhaps, by a similar transpiration effected by the electrical effluvium itself, and allowing the device to be used as a vaporiser. Pivati’s claims seemed to be confirmed by J.H. Winkler in Leipzig and were reported in England by William Watson (Watson 1751). Joseph Priestley’s popular survey of electricity in 1767 includes a detailed account of one of Pivati’s treatments:
[A] manifest example of the virtue of electricity was shown in the balsam of Peru, which was so concealed in a glass cylinder, that, before the excitation of it, not the least smell could by any means be discovered. A man who, having a pain in his side, had applied hyssop to it by the advice of a physician, approached the cylinder thus prepared, and was electrified by it. The consequence was, that when he went home, and fell asleep, he sweated, and the power of the balsam was so dispersed, that even his cloaths, the bed, and the chamber, all smelled of it. When he had refreshed himself by this sleep, he combed his head, and found the balsam to have penetrated his hair; so that the very comb was perfumed. (Priestley 1767, 147)
Meanwhile, however, Benjamin Franklin himself was slowly abandoning the atmospheric theory of electricity with which he had begun. In 1784, Franklin would serve on a committee established jointly by the French Royal Academy of Sciences and the Royal Academy of medicine, to establish whether there was any physical basis for the claims made by Franz Anton Mesmer about the existence of a healing mesmeric fluid, and supported their conclusion that no such fluid existed.
Thriving on Thoughts
For nearly three hundred years of experiment, speculation and spectacle, the study of electricity remained focussed on electrostatics. For all of the splendour and amazement of electricity and for all the highly energetic work of theory and imagination that it evoked, it was not at all clear that electricity would ever be much practical use for anything other than philosophical entertainment until the work of Michael Faraday made it possible to conceive of electricity being put to work. One might see the effort of this first epoch of electricity as being to try to establish electricity as a sensory object, something that could be seen, known and understood. Franklin’s experiments with lightning were only the last in a long line of attempts to make brightness fall from the air, to pull electricity out of the sky. After Faraday, electricity became something that one could use, the question of its mysterious nature lost to view, dissolved, as it were, into ubiquity. Electricity was no longer a substance, but a force, its potential and effects precisely controlled, even as its nature became less and less apparent, less and less available to be exhibited to the eye. Electrostatic electricity had been intensely present, but always short-lived; current electricity was powerfully and continuously available, but was no longer materially present. Where earlier theorists had accounted for the puzzling alternations of attraction and repulsion with the hypothesis of different kinds of electrical matter discharged by different substances, the resinous and the vitreous, Franklin had suggested that what counted were abstract variations of quantity: plusness and minusness. As with Freud’s libido, a thoroughly electrical conception, it was no longer necessary to decide quite what electricity consisted of: all that mattered were its varying quanta, the economies of its energetics.
The decline of the effluvial conception of electricity, at least in official and technical understandings of its operation, paralleled a more general move at the end of the nineteenth century from gas to electricity. This is more than just a technological shift. Electricity represented the future, gas the clinging, lingering past. Gas was slow, odorous, insidious, organic, laborious, approximate, fluctuating, mucky, noisy and massy. Electricity was fast, clean, absolute, mathematical and abstract. Gas lighting is mysterious, impulsive, erotic; it belongs to what Bachelard calls the ‘igneous time’ of replenishment and exhaustion (the gasometers that survive across London used conspicuously to respire, rising and falling as reservoirs of gas changed). Electric lighting is rational, homogeneous and eternal, abolishing time and crime. The opposition between the allegedly quick and humane electric chair, that guillotine of the twentieth century, and what many regarded as the barbarism of the gas chamber also embodies this contrast between the newness of the electrical and the archaism of the gaseous. The position of poison gas in twentieth-century warfare, at once up-to-date and atavistic throwback, belongs to this pattern of thought.
But, throughout the century that did so much to put electricity to work, by condensing and conducting it, making it at once a force and a commodity, another kind of pneumatism was in development, as new efforts of research and understanding started to focus once again upon what came to be thought of as the field effects of electricity. It is striking, for example, that much of the foundational nineteenth-century work on electromagnetism was done by J.C. Maxwell, who had made important discoveries about the behaviour of gases.
Probably the most expansive of the wireless visionaries of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was Nikola Tesla. Tesla was an inventor of genius. He devised the system of alternating current which replaced the direct current systems proposed by Edison. He was also an extremely strange man, whose inventive power seems to have been linked to some very distinctive neurological gifts and difficulties. His autobiography, written in his early sixties when his celebrity and fortunes were declining, reveals a history of hallucinatory experiences that he believed to be in part the source of his genius. From an early age, he was tormented by mental images of objects which would be as visible to him as if they were projected on to a screen (and in later life he would devote considerable time to the attempt to produce devices that would simulate this faculty). This capacity for intensely-detailed visualisation meant that he could see and manipulate objects and devices in imagination, allowing him ‘to rapidly develop and perfect a conception without touching anything’ (Tesla 1982, 33). This might be regarded as an instance of what Freud called ‘omnipotence of thoughts’. Throughout his life, Tesla refused to believe in the existence of limits, even in the laws of physics. His interest in electricity seems to have been anticipated by dreams of flight, which initially required no apparatus other than imagination:
Like most children I was fond of jumping and developed an intense desire to support myself in the air. Occasionally a strong wind richly charged with oxygen blew from the mountains rendering my body as light as cork and then I would leap and float in space for a long time. It was a delightful sensation and my disappointment was keen when later I undeceived myself. (Tesla 1982, 35)
Not long after, at the age of 11, Tesla developed an obsession with ‘the idea of producing continuous motion thru steady air pressure’. An incident in which he was able to avert disaster by mending a fire-pump, ‘imprest me with the boundless possibilities of a vacuum’, with the result that he ‘grew frantic in my desire to harness this inexhaustible energy’ (Tesla 1982, 52). In later life, this would reappear in the form of the bladeless turbine on which he spent so many fruitless years, and in the schemes he developed for the universal diffusion of power
Just as Tesla sought to overcome the mathematical limit determined by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, he would also seek to overcome the limits represented by space. But the annihilation of distance could take nightmarish forms, as for example in the intense sensitivity to sound he developed during a nervous breakdown he underwent in Budapest:
A fly alighting on a table in the room would cause a dull thud in my ear. A carriage passing at a distance of a few miles fairly shook my whole body. The whistle of a locomotive thirty miles away made the bench or chair on which I sat vibrate so strongly that the pain was unbearable. The ground under my feet trembled continuously. I had to support my bed on rubber cushions to get any sleep at all. The roaring noises from near and far often produced the effect of spoken words which would have frightened me had I not been able to resolve them into their accidental components. The sun’s rays, when periodically intercepted, would cause blows of such force on my brain that they would stun me. I had to summon all my will power to pass under a bridge or other structure, as I experienced a crushing pressure on the skull. In the dark I had the sense of a bat and could detect the presence of an object at a distance of twelve feet by a peculiar creepy sensation on the forehead. My pulse varied from a few to two hundred and sixty beats and all the tissues of the body with twitchings and tremors (Tesla 1982, 59-60)
After his recovery, Tesla developed grandiose fantasies about his own physical power which seem to reverse this paranoiac helplessness. He wrote with pride of his superhuman physical powers:
A short time ago I was returning to my hotel. It was a bitter cold night, the ground slippery, and no taxi to be had. Half a block behind me followed another man, evidently as anxious as myself to get under cover. Suddenly my legs went up in the air. In the same instant there was a flash in my brain, the nerves responded, the muscles contracted, I swung thru 180 degrees and landed on my hands. I resumed my walk as tho nothing had happened when the stranger caught up with me. “How old are you?” he asked, surveying me critically. “Oh, about fifty-nine,” I replied. “What of it?” “Well,” said he, “I have seen a cat do this but never a man.” About a month since I wanted to order new eyeglasses and went to an oculist who put me thru the usual tests. He lookt at me increduslously as I read off with ease the smallest print at a considerable distance. But when I told him I was past sixty he gasped in astonishment. (Tesla 1982, 40-1)
Where in his illness the universe had pressed in remorselessly upon him, Tesla sought to devise ways in which he might expand resistlessly into all parts of the universe. At a time when the rest of the world was busy putting electricity to work, by channelling and confining it – in switches, relays, condensers, wires and networks – Tesla came to see a new opportunity for a limitless field of power, in which electricity would become identifiable with space itself, and the body electric would extend to all quarters of that space. He is a kind of obverse of Daniel Paul Schreber. Where Schreber thought himself the last man alive in an annihilated universe, and the central switchboard of a universal system of radiations, Tesla’s dream was of a dematerialised, delocalised world, in which he was everybody and everywhere. Exposure becomes expansion.
Having devised the alternating current system that would drive the wire-conduction systems and networks of electricity to this day, he turned his attention more and more to wireless and air-conducted electrical phenomena. He developed systems for generating artificial lightning, with balls operating at potentials of over 3 million volts, as well as systems of wireless lighting by incandescence. He became fascinated by ball lightning, which moves much more slowly than forked lightning and can even seem to hover in the air, and succeeded in making his own fireballs in 1900 (Lomas 1999, 178). During the 1890s and early years of the new century, he expended huge amounts of effort on a system for beaming electrical power round the globe from transmitter towers giving out electrical impulses at fantastically high voltages. The purpose of what he called his ‘World System’ was ‘to wirelessly electrify the entire earth, instantaneously making available to the world’s remotest hamlet all the benefits of the electric age, free for the taking. (Tesla 1982, 16). This system, powered by huge ‘magnifying transmitters’, is a projection into the world of his own diffused organless body:
The greatest good will come from technical improvements tending to unification and harmony, and my wireless transmitter is preeminently such. By its means the human voice and likeness will be reproduced everywhere and factories driven thousands of miles from waterfalls furnishing the power; aerial machines will be propelled around the earth without a stop and the sun’s energy controlled to create lakes and rivers for motive purposes and transformation of arid deserts into fertile land. Its introduction for telegraphic, telephonic and similar uses will automatically cut out the statics and all other interferences which at present impose narrow limits to the application of the wireless. (Tesla 1982, 95-6)
Central to this ambition for universal propagation is the principle of amplification. During the 1890s, he became interested in ways of amplifying electrical impulses. Indeed, electricity became identified with the principle of amplification itself. He describes seeing a lightning flash precipitating a deluge during a mountain storm, a sight which, in contrast to Franklin’s awestruck witnesses of the lightning, led him to reflect that ‘the electrical energy involved in the precipitation of the water was inconsiderable, the function of lightning being much like that of a sensitive trigger’ (Tesla 1982, 83). Electricity allowed him a vision of endlessly renewable power, in which the kinetic and the cognitive could operate on commensurable scales, and the world could be powered by mental energies and impulses. He wrote ‘Every effort under compulsion demands a sacrifice of life-energy. I never paid such a price. On the contrary, I have thrived on my thoughts’ (Tesla 1982, 27). The electrically-charged air seems to have been the element that bore out the fantasy of creating energy from nothing, or almost nothing, multiplying itself out of thin air.
In the early years of the electrical fascination, electricity was conceived as a kind of matter, diffuse, airy, but materially in and of the world. After Franklin and Faraday, it was dematerialised. Finally, having itself been dematerialised in order to operate more effectively on the world, electricity began its work of immaterialising the world itself. Perhaps my mother was right: in the matter of electricity, what matters most is what is in, or on the air.
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