July 2006

Chris Winters


Electric Universe: How Electricity Switched on the Modern World by David Bodanis

An early chapter of Electric Universe, David Bodanis’s history of electricity, details Alexander Graham Bell’s success in figuring out a way to allow a human voice to be carried down an electric wire. It’s a sweet success because one of Bell’s primary motivations was to prove his worth to the upper-class family of one of his deaf students, Mabel Hubbard, with whom he was desperately in love.

But as in all good stories, there’s a villain: William Orton, head of Western Union, who wanted to get his hands on this new device which threatened to undermine his telegraph business. He turns to the unscrupulous head of a commercial lab in New Jersey to produce a copy, which would be used to crush Bell’s fledgling startup.

This patent buster, described by Orton as a man “who had a vacuum where his conscience ought to be,” was Thomas Edison.

The interplay of personalities is the central theme running through the book. From the earliest theories and experiments with this strange force that produced sparks to the key discoveries that turned the course of world wars, the main players were driven not just by the sense of discovery but by their own attempts to compensate for or overcome their own shortcomings.

Thus in Bodanis’s easy prose we learn about Edison, a misanthrope whose resentfulness at being disregarded turns into his ruthless drive for success. It was Michael Faraday, a devout Christian who felt the divine presence everywhere, who first described electromagnetic fields. The radio technician Robert Watson Watt would find that his attempt to use radio waves to protect England from the German Luftwaffe would be most thwarted by bureaucratic stubbornness and an angry status-obsessed ex-academic who had the ear of Winston Churchill.

The most tragic figure of all is the foremost codebreaker and researcher at England’s Bletchley Park facility, Alan Turing. His most important work during World War II remained a state secret until the 1970s, and his drive to create a “universal machine” that incorporates programming and memory storage was too far above the more earth-bound technicians of the post-war period. The British class system created an unbridgeable rift between the upper-middle class Turing and researchers from the lower classes: “Everyone at Bletchley had worked together, but that was then. The unity of wartime was fading. The Manchester engineers had a lifetime of experience to show that someone with an accent like his was likely to ignore them smugly, or at least not have any useful advice to offer.” Persecuted for his homosexuality and frustrated in his work, Turing commits suicide in 1954, seemingly unaware that the key to his life’s work was the silicon transistor, which had been invented in America several years before.

While Bodanis favors narrative and history, he doesn’t pass over the physics. He leaves out the equations, but explains clearly how this invisible force works in everything from batteries to radar to the human brain. He seems to delight in describing how electrons in a German airplane wing are agitated by a radio wave from an English transmitter on the coast, and which send their own waves back to the waiting receivers. The chapters describing World War II are some of the most dramatic: It was the race to build radar that prevented Nazi Germany from knocking out Britain’s air defenses and overrunning the island in 1940.

He does, however, go overboard on occasion, dropping down to the subatomic level for another breathless description when we really need to move on with the story. And while his style is clear and humorous, but there are occasional howlers. One passage reads, “Silicon was so fickle that when the great research division at Bell Labs began efforts to create nonmechanical switches, one of its first directives -- as wise as Disney firing Jeffrey Katzenberg just before he produced Shrek -- was to cancel all research on silicon.” You wonder what Bodanis was thinking when he wrote that, but such moments are rare, thankfully.

The book includes a comprehensive guide for further reading that points to everything from popular histories to government reports. A section of endnotes also expands on earlier points, although they are frustratingly arranged by page number and not referred to in the main body of the text, so you have to go hunting back through the book to understand some of their context. None of this detracts from the overall impact, which is impressive. It won the Royal Society’s Aventis Prize for Science Book of the Year in 2006. Bodanis is also the author of E=mc2: a Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation, of which Electric Universe can be seen as something of a sequel.

Electric Universe is a good book for anyone unfamiliar with either the physics or the history of electricity, and even those with more technical knowledge will enjoy the stories Bodanis is telling. The lesson of these stories is that while genius is good and discoveries are important, it’s the people and personalities behind them that will determine the course of history. Thanks to this book, we get a much clearer picture of how that happened.
Electric Universe: How Electricity Switched On the Modern World by David Bodanis
Three Rivers Press
ISBN 0307335984
308 pages