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The birth of wonders

Fleet Fire: Thomas Edison and the Pioneers of the Electric Revolution, L.J. Davis, Arcade: 350 pp., $27.95 Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World, Jill Jonnes, Random House: 418 pp., $27.95

August 17, 2003|Patricia Fara | Patricia Fara is a fellow of Clare College, Cambridge. Her most recent books are "An Entertainment for Angels: Electricity in the Enlightenment" and "Newton: The Making of Genius."

Who discovered electricity? How you answer that question depends on your nationality. For an American, it has to be Benjamin Franklin, but other patriots can also stake legitimate claims. British chauvinists might propose William Gilbert, the 16th century expert on magnetism who coined the phenomenon's name from "electron," the Greek for amber. Italians can boast of two famous 18th century pioneers, Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta: Although archrivals, between them they revolutionized the world.

"Revolutionized" is an apt verb, because this was a time of political upheaval, when the word acquired its modern sense of violent overthrow. Before the French Revolution, revolutions were about stability -- the planets slowly revolved around the sun in repeated patterns. Ten years later, conservative Britons were terrified that disruptive influences might seep across the Channel to upset their orderly hierarchy. Europe's electrical experts were also divided, unable to agree on how many forms of electricity exist: Could Galvani's electricity, which he found in his frog experiments, really be the same as Volta's electricity, produced by an early battery?

Convinced that European science was saturated with political malevolence, British critics harassed Humphry Davy, a radical chemist who championed Volta's invention. As part of these attacks, the anonymous "Sceptic" published a satirical pamphlet titled "The Birth of Wonders!" Sceptic envisaged the birth of Revolution followed by one foreign baby science after another, until the phantom of revolutionary hysteria "entered into the body of a Frog, which professor Galvani was dressing for his Wife's supper." Thus was born the anecdote that Galvani discovered animal electricity while eating his dinner, an indigestible scientific legend that L.J. Davis seems to have swallowed whole in "Fleet Fire," despite the jacket's promise of debunked mythology. In this long-sweep account of electricity's past, Davis gives his Revolutions capital letters to make them seem Significant. Echoing Sceptic, he identifies the birth of an Electrical Revolution with the invention of Volta's battery. According to him, England had only recently emerged from the Neolithic Revolution and was embroiled in an Industrial one whose seeds were sown 16 centuries earlier by Hero of Alexandria (alternatively, elsewhere in the book, the Industrial Revolution sprang into action in 1769) and that would culminate in nuclear power plants and the Computer Revolution.

Revolutions make history exciting, but is it sensible to depict them as lasting hundreds or even thousands of years? And many events gain importance only in retrospect: Can people unwittingly participate in revolutionary change? Are scientific revolutions really as sudden and momentous as political ones? In addition, Davis' narrative is punctuated by mini-revolutions, since he attaches great importance to individual innovation. Like many historians, he portrays science as a race in which the torch of truth is handed from one intrepid pioneer to another -- even though some of his heroes are flawed.

Rather than telling a continuous story, Davis gives his readers a linked collection of brief biographies which together suggest that America almost single-handedly electrified the world. He evidently regards the birth of electronic wonders with enthusiasm, since he relies heavily on Web sites for his information, a reminder that technological advances do not necessarily guarantee improvement. Anyone wanting a rapid survey of early electricity would do better to read the second chapter of "Empires of Light" by Jill Jonnes, a scholar who has -- unlike Davis -- consulted the standard histories of electricity. This competent overview is a rather superfluous prelude to her thoroughly researched study of the triangular relationship of Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse during the early years of the electrical industry at the end of the 19th century.

Jonnes transforms her solid sources into a lively account of how personal ambitions and hostilities fueled the interaction between science and business during the long War of the Electric Currents, when Edison and Westinghouse battled to gain financial control of American power. Packed with details, this is an entertaining and informative book, slightly marred by the author's predilection for florid imagery: Her cast includes tough-hearted titans and craggy-faced mathematicians, to say nothing of wise old frogs (this time not galvanic).

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