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  • Online publication date: December 2014

2 - The Uncertain Identity of Electricity


Our experience is that electricity for lighting purposes, as for telegraphy and telephony, is a most docile and easily managed servant, if only ordinary care and prudence are exercised, and that under such conditions the public need not have any apprehension in availing themselves of the many valuable advantages that exist for them in adopting the electric light.

‘The Accident at Hatfield’, letter of James Humphrys, General Manager of the Anglo-American Brush Electric Light Corporation.

[It is] impossible for me to tell what Electricity is! I cannot even learn myself from our greatest Scientists “what Electricity really is”. They know how to collect it, or “generate” it, also many methods of utilising it the benefit of mankind.

Maud Lancaster [‘Housewife’], Electric Cooking Heating, Cleaning etc: being a manual of electricity in the service of the home, 1914.

The previous chapter examined what domestication meant for the first few decades of electrification in Anglo-American culture. This chapter examines the diverse meanings of ‘electricity’ for the period in question. What was it that was being – or not being – domesticated under the name of electricity? There was quite a variety of answers to this question, and not only different answers but also different kinds of answers; cultural, material, metaphysical and iconographical. This proliferation of different meanings of electricity matters if we are to understand why so little common understanding of electricity was actually shared among contemporary householders, engineers and electrical promoters first discussing its domestication. Different groups had distinctively different concerns here; the identity of electricity mattered very much for those who were considering whether to allow it in their home. Was it a benign and well-understood servant who would respond in an orderly way to the householder's wishes, as claimed by the supplier of electrical generators implicated in the much publicized death of one of Lord Salisbury's labourers in December 1881 (see epigraph)? Or was it an insidious stranger with uncertain credentials who brought hazard and discomfort into the very heart of the home?

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Domesticating Electricity
  • Online ISBN: 9781851965809
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