By The Landlord
“What is a soul? It’s like electricity – we don’t really know what it is, but it’s a force that can light a room.” – Ray Charles
“Electricity is really just organised lightning.” – George Carlin
“As in nature, all is ebb and tide, all is wave motion, so it seems that in all branches of industry, alternating currents – electric wave motion – will have the sway.” – Nikola Tesla
I can still remember the shock of it, because she grabbed my arm and yelled. “No!!!” We were on a family holiday near Rhyl, Wales, in the 1970s, staying at a modest Bed & Breakfast, the sort of place where you could almost see and feel the crackle of static coming off the cheap nylon curtains and sheets. It happened in the front parlour, where breakfast was served, and as a keen young nipper, I spontaneously decided to rescue a piece of toast that had got stuck in the electric toaster, by sticking a metal knife down it. The landlady grabbed me just in time. Could I have died? Perhaps. Next time I remembered to use my loaf.
Dangerous as it might be on occasions, it’s hard to imagine living without electricity. It powers almost every facet of modern life. “If it weren’t for electricity, we’d all be watching television by candlelight,” quipped the American comedian and presenter George Gobel. “We forget just how painfully dim the world was before electricity. A candle, a good candle, provides barely a hundredth of the illumination of a single 100-watt lightbulb,” writes Bill Bryson. “And God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light, but the Electricity Board said He would have to wait until Thursday to be connected,” adds that mischievous old spark, Spike Milligan.
Without it, the world would certainly have been a scarier, far more dangerous place. Having said that, if we continue to produce electricity by fossil fuels rather than renewable energy, then the danger of the dark, or a toaster, will be hugely eclipsed by massive climate change. Mass extinction is far more frightening. So let’s rebel against that happening …
But let’s also turn to other creative matters, and songs about electricity. If the topic were songs using electricity then it would be never-ending, even if we discounted all songs that came after Bob Dylan plugging in his electric guitar at the famous concert in Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966 when an ardent folk fan shouted “Judas!” So the topic is a lyrical one, using any reference to this natural, or artificially generated power source, in contexts literal or metaphorical, from plugged-in applications, to descriptions of atmosphere or personality.
So where did it all begin? Long before us of course, with the Big Bang, and lightning storms that combined with other forces to help create life, and the forces of bioelectromagnetics that make us all move, discovered by Luigi Galvani in 1791 when he demonstrated that electricity was the medium by which neurons passed signals to muscles.
In terms of reference, the earliest known are texts dating from 2750 BC referred to electric fish as the “Thunderer of the Nile”, and described them as protectors of all other fish. Much later Pliny the Elder and Scribonius Largus, attested to the numbing effect of electric shocks delivered by catfish and electric rays, and worked out that such shocks could travel along conducting objects.
So this week’s songs could also include reference to the great scientists who have helped us move towards to the fully illuminated and powered world we enjoy today. Perhaps from the early 18th century with Otto von Guericke, Robert Boyle, Stephen Gray and C. F. du Fay, and then most famously Benjamin Franklin.
Bolt out of the blue: Benjamin Franklin and his son William conduct the kite experiment
Electricity however was a still a great mystery to most people, including some scientists. “I’ve found out so much about electricity that I’ve reached the point where I understand nothing and can explain nothing,” said Dutchman Pieter van Musschenbroek on describing his experiments with the Leyden jar. But all of these giants sparked off each other, and were giants on which others could stand.
And how also could we manage now without everything that came from Alessandro Volta’s battery, or voltaic pile, of 1800, made from alternating layers of zinc and copper, or the understanding of electromagnetism, the unity of electric and magnetic phenomena, from Hans Christian Ørsted and André-Marie Ampère in 1819–1820, and of course Michael Faraday’s huge talents and achievements, his capacity for the capacitance, the farad? Or Goerg Ohm and his circuit theory and ability to build and use measurements of resistance.
In 1887, Heinrich Hertz discovered that electrodes illuminated with ultraviolet light create electric sparks more easily, and it is in this era that electricity became especially exciting.The holy trinity of Thomas Edison, Charles Steinmetz or Nikola Tesla were popularly conceived of as having wizard-like powers because of the spectacle they could create.
Sparky: Nikola Tesla
Edison has become a figurehead for applying electricity to all kinds of products, but for all his genius, Nikola Tesla (1856–1943) I feel was the more exciting, enigmatic and more inspirational figure. He was born in what is now Croatia, but then part of the Austrian empire, and emigrated to America to become a foremost inventor, physicist and electrical engineer. He was a visionary, a futurist, a man of frightening intellect and dazzling showmanship, harnessing A/C (alternating current), also laying the foundation work for radar, robotics, wireless communication, radio, the fluorescent lightbulb, rotating electro-magnetic power, the X-ray, and the bladeless turbine. For a long time overlooked by history and overshadowed by rival Thomas Edison, he was finally given credence when SI unit of magnetic flux density, or magnetic field strength, the tesla, was named after him in 1960, equivalent to one weber (named after the earlier German physicist Wilhelm Eduard Weber) per square metre.
“Invention is the most important product of man’s creative brain. The ultimate purpose is the complete mastery of mind over the material world, the harnessing of human nature to human needs.” he wrote, in his book My Inventions.
Here, quite amusingly and oddly, he is played by David Bowie in the fantasy film The Prestige, in 2006, with plenty of Tesla coil excitement on offer.