Electricity was supposed to make life easier and ensure happiness,” English professor Linda Simon tells a rapt audience at the Schenectady (N.Y.) Museum. About three dozen alumni and guests of the local Skidmore club gathered there in October to hear her talk about her new book, Dark Light: Electricity and Anxiety from the Telegraph to the X-Ray.
Even decades after the invention of the lightbulb, Americans were hesitant about household use of this frightening force that crackled and sparked—though they readily indulged in electrotherapy treatments for every imaginable ailment, from hysteria to constipation. If electric baths had a certain appeal (“a patient sat in a bath while
a current, too weak to cause harm, passed through the water”—with the purported effect of “decreased digestive problems and a noticeable feeling of tranquility”), the experience of getting even “a mild shock when turning on a lamp or touching a switch” left many people fearing for their lives.
Today, our dependence on electricity is shocking: “If we have a power failure even for five minutes, we just give up and feel like going to bed,” Simon exclaimed. —MTS