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(Reprinted from the Sunday Times Union, June 27, 2004)

Electric Shock, in More Ways Than One

By Tresca Weinstein
Special to the Times Union

These days, it's cloning and genetic therapy that give us the willies. Fifty years ago, it was computers and robots. Technological and scientific advances have a way of inspiring discomfort, if not outright fear and loathing, in the 99 percent of us who don't fully understand how they work.

Some 150 years ago, the same sort of public anxieties swirled around electricity—that invisible force that today's civilization can't live without. Thirty years after Thomas Edison invented the light bulb in 1879, barely 10 percent of American homes were wired. When the first execution by electric chair was performed in New York state in 1890, it had to be done in the daytime, because the Auburn prison where it took place didn't yet have electric lights.

Oddly enough, however, the same 19th-century Americans who so stubbornly resisted electric lighting and appliances didn't think twice about stepping into the doctor's office for a dose of electrotherapy, which was sold as being able to alleviate everything from sexual dysfunction to mental illness.

This bizarre paradox is at the heart of Skidmore College professor Linda Simon's new book, "Dark Light: Electricity and Anxiety from the Telegraph to the X-Ray" (Harcourt, 368 pages, $25). Bracketed by Samuel Morse's invention of the telegraph around 1844 and Wilhelm Roentgen's discovery of the X-ray in 1895, the book explores the neuroses, superstitions, moral issues and literature that arose at the dawn of the Electric Age.

Electric soul

Simon, a professor of English at Skidmore, has written biographies of Alice B. Toklas, Thornton Wilder, Lady Margaret Beaufort (the grandmother of Henry VIII) and William James. It was her study of James that provided the seed for "Dark Light": A philosopher and psychologist, James was intrigued by psychic phenomena, and his colleagues in investigating the occult, Simon discovered, were physicists who were also researching electricity.

"The idea was that the soul was electrical and could come back to life, that the same force that twitched nerves was electrical," Simon said in an interview.

To prove these theories, scientists performed experiments such as sending electric currents into muck and then observing whether life grew there. (It did, of course—no thanks to the electric shocks.)

The concept of a link between electrical force and life force—along with the lack of effective drugs or medical treatments at the time—led to the popularity of electrotherapy. Patients popped in for a quick jolt as nonchalantly as women today visit the plastic surgeon's for a Botox fix. The effect, however, was more a placebo than anything else.

"You would get hooked up in the doctor's office to batteries and get maybe a little buzz or hardly anything," Simon said. "It would be like a massage. The attention was nice and the mind-over-matter belief that it worked helped to promulgate it."

Lighting up

Meanwhile, the idea of putting electricity to use in cities and homes was shunned as dangerous, expensive and ugly. Robert Louis Stevenson called the early electric arc lamps' intense, bluish beam "horrible, unearthly, obnoxious to the human eye, a lamp for a nightmare."

Newspapers reported electrocutions and fires. That first execution by electric chair, which Simon relates in horrifying detail, was a botched experiment because no one knew at what strength or for how long the current should run. Electricity simply looked and sounded scary.

"Now electricity is a kind of invisible force in every way, but at that time it wasn't," Simon said. "You could hear it crackling and, when sparks would fly, you could see it. ... Aesthetically, electric light was so much brighter than gas that it seemed glaring and intrusive."

At the hub of all this controversy was the brilliant, ambitious Thomas Edison.

"His childhood situation had been very shaky," Simon said, "and his primary motivation was to make money and lots of it, any way he could. He kept turning out inventions, mostly for businesses, and not all of them caught on."

In researching "Dark Light," Simon perused Edison's extensive writings at the Bakken Library and Museum for Electricity in Life in Minneapolis. She read Mark Twain's visions of an electronic future and L. Frank Baum's "The Master Key," featuring the sinister Demon of Electricity, and paged through century-old newspapers, science journals and popular periodicals.

Chilled to the bone

She vividly remembers the experience of being immersed in the 19th-century mind-set and turning a page to see the first X-ray photograph ever published in a magazine, in early 1896.

"I was chilled to the bone by that sight, by the idea that you could see through the skin," she recalled. "It was also the most thrilling image."

The idea that electricity could penetrate their innermost selves was equally chilling to the denizens of that time. Though X-rays eventually took on sentimental significance—relatives and betrothed couples would exchange them as intimate mementos—they also served to intensify the widespread symptoms of anxiety and unhappiness that physician George Beard, another central figure in the book, diagnosed as "neurasthenia." Beard cited the intrusiveness of technology and the increasing pace of life, due in large part to electricity, as contributing factors in the spread of the disease.

"He especially focused on the telegraph and the speed at which we had to deal with news," Simon said. "In his perception, it was like dealing with e-mail all day. The anxiety came from our feeling of powerlessness, not being able to feel in control of basic things that affect us. People felt lesser and lesser in a world that was asking more and more of them."

Permanent inroads

The advent of World War I shifted Americans' fear and loathing elsewhere, and electricity gradually made permanent inroads; the intrusiveness of electrotherapy was replaced by that of psychoanalysis. But Simon concluded that the question of how "our culture responds to and assimilates ideas that are huge and have huge consequences" remains unresolved.

What she came to realize is "how deeply people really want to have an unknown in the world," she said. "The idea that science can find everything and everything can be known, though it seems as if it would be comforting, takes something exciting and vital away from the experience of living. There's a resistance again and again to a materialistic explanation of the world."

Another constant seems to be that despite hazards and controversy, scientists and inventors rarely abandon the pursuit of discoveries that may hold great benefit for mankind. And they often underestimate the potential of what they uncover. As Simon noted, Alexander Graham Bell once said that the telephone was such a wonderful idea, every town would one day have two.

Creative Thought Matters.
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