Top banner


Beyond Faraday's Glare

Bruce Hunt

Frankenstein's Children: Electricity, Exhibition, and Experiment in Early-Nineteenth-Century London. Iwan Rhys Morus. 324 pp. Princeton University Press, 1998. $47.50.

The figure of Michael Faraday understandably dominates most histories of electricity in the first half of the 19th century. The dramatic story of his rise from humble origins, his path-breaking experimental discoveries and his formulation of revolutionary theoretical ideas has cast most other electrical events and personalities of his time into the shade. Iwan Rhys Morus has now looked beneath the standard monument to Faraday and found a world teeming with fascinating people and activities.

After a brief but useful look at Faraday himself, Morus turns to the interlocking stories of William Sturgeon, the Adelaide Gallery and the London Electrical Society. Remembered today, if at all, as the inventor of the electromagnet, Sturgeon (1783–1850) was in many ways Faraday's doppelgänger. Like Faraday a man of humble origins, Sturgeon worked as a soldier and shoemaker before taking up electrical experimentation. In the 1820s and 1830s he became a well-known lecturer, editor and instrument maker, and he was for a time Faraday's principal rival and critic. Morus brings out nicely Sturgeon's concern with the display of electrical and magnetic effects. Whereas Faraday worked hard to efface his own role in creating experimental phenomena and to present them as simply the workings of nature that he had done no more than reveal, Sturgeon emphasized the actual devices that produced sparks and shocks and highlighted his own role as their maker.

In the 1830s the Adelaide Gallery, a commercially run hall near Trafalgar Square, provided Sturgeon and other inventors a venue at which to show off their wares. It also served as a meeting place for the London Electrical Society, founded by Sturgeon and others in 1837. The story of the rise and fall of the Society—it dissolved in 1843, hopelessly in debt—encapsulates many of Morus's themes, particularly its founders' enthusiasm for a populist "artisanal" approach to science and the obstacles their ambitious plans faced at a time when electricity promised much but had as yet delivered little beyond showy effects.

As Morus notes, the 1840s witnessed "the industrialization of electricity" as it moved from the realm of display and entertainment to that of production and commerce. Morus devotes his last three chapters to the uses electricity found in electroplating, telegraphy and medical therapy and to the disputes that repeatedly arose over where to draw the line between science and technology or between the natural philosopher who discovered principles and the inventor who built machines. Morus shows how permeable this line was and how the way credit was divided in particular cases—for instance, between the telegraph entrepreneur W. F. Cooke and his erstwhile partner, the physicist Charles Wheatsone—had enduring consequences for the status of both scientists and inventors.

The ominous title of the book is a bit of a stretch and draws for its resonance more on the vivid imagery of the 1931 Boris Karloff movie than on Mary Shelley's 1818 novel, in which electricity barely figures. One might also wish that Morus had applied sociological jargon with a lighter hand and had described such devices as Sturgeon's sphere or Joseph Saxton's magnetoelectric machine in enough detail for readers to be able to follow their workings. That said, Frankenstein's Children is a fine book and adds substantially to our understanding not only of the history of electricity but also of a seminal period in the emergence of modern science and technology.—Bruce J. Hunt, History, University of Texas at Austin

comments powered by Disqus


Bottom Banner