Spring 2006

Volts from the Blue

Something in the air

Steven Connor

Nikola Tesla at his laboratory in Colorado Springs, peacefully reading as millions of volts from his Magnifying Transmitter crackle overhead. In his notes, Tesla identified the photo as a double exposure produced for publicity purposes, ca. 1900.

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 its fluent route 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. It couldn’t haunt. 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. Because electricity is visible only in its effects, it tended to be associated with and understood in terms of the varied airs, vapors, ethers, and effluvia that 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—the pneumatic complexion of the electrical, as it might be called—that I will be occupied.

Electric Breath
Most early theories of electricity depended upon an idea that electricity was a kind of matter—diffuse, airy, but materially in and of the world. A leading idea was of electricity as an effluvium, or stream 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.[1] 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 humors. 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,” it has the electric power of attracting.[2] This power comes from “something imperceptible for us flowing out of the substance into the ambient air.”[3] Gilbert reminds himself that Plutarch, in his Quaestiones Platonicae, sees “something flame-like, or having the nature of the breath” in amber, 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.”[4] And yet these attenuated vapors are also indeed 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”:[5]

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.[6]

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.”[7] Nevertheless, because Gilbert believes that “[a]ll bodies are untied and, as it were, cemented together by moisture,” he 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:[8] “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.”[9]

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.[10] 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 non-conductors that 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.”[11] 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.”[12] 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 Carthusian monks in this way. Women were suspected of 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 would have been under the circumstances) that had discharged the current.[13]

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,” 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.”[14] 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.[15]

The strangeness of electricity seemed to be that it was at once “so moveable and incapable of rest” and yet also capable of being arrested if deprived of a suitable conductor, for example, by the air.[16] This latter had been demonstrated most dramatically by the experiments of Stephen Gray in the early 1700s, 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” is borne out by the fact that so many demonstrations and depictions showed electrified subjects who were themselves suspended in midair (even though the reason for this is actually to use the air as insulation).[17] 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.”[18]

Geometry of Air
Two things happened in the mid-1740s to put pressure on the idea of electrical atmospheres. First of all, in 1745 and 1746, Ewald Jürgen von Kleist and Pieter van 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 that 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.

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. 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.[19] 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.

After the revolutions of the later eighteenth century, a more romantic temper was inclined to identify the surcharged thundercloud 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 for previous generations consecrated church-bells had been thought bluntly to pulverize 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.

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.[21]

Bodies Electric
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 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 that 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 vapor 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,” 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.[22] 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 its expansive and diluted form.[23]

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 emphasizes 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.[24]

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 odor would transpire through the glass, encouraged, perhaps, by a similar transpiration effected by the electrical effluvium itself, thereby allowing the device to be used as a vaporizer. Pivati’s claims seemed to be confirmed by J. H. Winkler in Leipzig and were reported in England by William Watson.[25] 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.[26]

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 determine 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.

Electric Affinities
For nearly three hundred years of experiment, speculation, and spectacle, the study of electricity remained focused on electrostatics. For all of the splendor 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 this first epoch of electricity as trying 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, belongs to this pattern of thought.

But the twentieth century saw electricity taking to the air once again, with the move from the electric to the electronic. With this, lines of force have begun once again to be calculated, imagined, and lived as fields of force, thus partially reviving, or keeping fitfully alive, the archaic conception of electricity as effluvium. Our world is governed not only, and perhaps not principally, by the sense of the network, the relay, the switchboard, and the circuit, but by incontinent dreams of shifting, dissolving, overlapping fields of force, of hot spots, data clouds, and the exquisitely oxymoronic notion of the “wireless network.” Electricity used to be meteorological; the electronic has become our weather. Perhaps my mother was right: in the matter of electricity, what matters most is what is in or on the air.

There is disagreement about how many monks were included in Nollet’s experiment, how long a chain they formed, and indeed whether they formed a line or a circle. Lines of 200, or 700 monks, are regularly reported, and the line rendered variously as a kilometer, 1.5 kilometers, and a mile in length. The largest estimate suggests that more than 1,000 Carthusian monks held hands in a circle 900 feet across. Some math may help. If we assume that the monks were standing with their arms almost outspread, they might reasonably take up five feet each. That yields approximately 1000 mpm (monks per mile), or around 620 mpk (monks per kilometer). It is very hard to see how 200 monks could be stretched into a line a mile long, unless of course they were stationed at rather lengthy, and lonely, intervals—8.8 yards apart, to be precise. A circle of 1000 monks (the idea of the circle perhaps being generated by some mistaken scruples about the necessity of closing the electrical circuit) standing five feet apart would have a diameter of 1591 feet. A circle 900 feet across would require only 565 monks to form its circumference of 2827.43 feet. But 1000 tightly bunched monks might easily form such a circumference.

  1. Duane H. D. Roller, The De Magnete of William Gilbert (Amsterdam: Menno Hertzberger, 1959), p. 127.
  2. William Gilbert, On the Loadstone and Magnetic Bodies, and On the Great Magnet the Earth: A New Physiology, Demonstrated With Many Arguments and Experiments, trans. P. Fleury Mottelay (London: Bernard Quaritch, 1893), p. 84.
  3. Ibid., p. 87.
  4. Ibid., p. 87 and p. 89.
  5. Ibid., p. 95.
  6. Ibid., p. 91.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., p. 92.
  9. Ibid.
  10. J. L. Heilbron, Electricity in the 17th and 18th Centuries: A Study of Early Modern Physics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), pp. 191–192.
  11. Albrecht von Haller, “Experiments on Electricity,” in Gentleman’s Magazine (1745), no. 15, p. 197.
  12. Ibid., p. 195.
  13. Heilbron, op. cit. p. 320.
  14. Johann Heinrich Winkler, Gedanken von den Eigenschaften, Wirkungen und Ursachen der Electricitat, nebst einer Beschreibung zwo neuer electrischen Maschinen (Leipzig: Bernhard Christoph Breitkopfs, 1744), p. 79 and p. 102.
  15. Benjamin Wilson, An Essay Towards an Explication of the Phaenomena of Electricity, Deduced From the Aether of Sir Isaac Newton (London: C. Davis, for Royal Society, 1746), p. 20 and p. 25.
  16. Haller, op. cit. p. 193.
  17. Heilbron, op. cit. p. 243.
  18. Quoted in I. Bernard Cohen, Benjamin Franklin’s Science (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990), p. 125.
  19. Benjamin Wilson, An Account of Experiments Made at the Pantheon, on the Nature and Use of Conductors (London: J. Nourse, 1778); Patrice Fara, An Entertainment for Angels: Electricity in the Enlightenment (Cambridge: Icon Books, 2002), pp. 78–81; Heilbron, op. cit., pp. 380–383.
  20. Erasmus Darwin, The Botanic Garden, A Poem, 4th edition (London: J, Johnson, 1799), pp. 104–105, Canto II.6.
  21. Alison Winter, Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 309–320.
  22. The term “electrical humanitarianism” is Delbourgo’s. See James Delbourgo, “Electrical Humanitarianism in North America: Dr. T. Gale’s Electricity, Or Etherial Fire, Considered (1802) in Historical Context.” in Electric Bodies: Episodes in the History of Medical Electricity, eds. Paola Bertucci and Giuliano Pancaldi (Bologna: Dipartimento di Filosofia, Universita di Bologna, 2001), pp. 117–156.
  23. Michael La Beaume, Remarks on the History and Philosophy, But Particularly on the Medical Efficacy of Electricity…, 2nd edition (London: F. Warr, 1820), p. 40.
  24. La Beaume, op. cit., p. 46.
  25. William Watson, “An Account of Professor Winkler’s Experiments Relating to Odours Passing Through Electrised Globes and Tubes…,” in Philosophical Transactions (1751), no. 47, pp. 231–241.
  26. Joseph Priestley, The History and Present State of Electricity, With Original Experiments (London: J. Dodsley, 1767), p. 147.

Steven Connor is Professor of Modern Literature and Theory at Birkbeck College, London, and a writer and broadcaster. He has written on a wide variety of topics in cultural history. His book Fly will appear from Reaktion Books later this year, and he is currently writing about air. Unpublished works, lectures, broadcasts, and works-in-progress can be found at www.stevenconnor.com.

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