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5 - Electricity as the Future: Prophetic Expertise And Contested Authority

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Summary

Electric lighting, on some distributive [public] plan like that of gas, is still an event of the future, in England. Other countries (notably the United States), Germany, Austria, Italy, Belgium, &c., are ahead of us; but in the electrical illumination of our homes – the traditional castle of the Englishman, we are in advance of all other countries. […] In fact electric lighting is becoming a fashion, and the only fear for its ultimate general success is its falling into the hands of the inexperienced and ignorant – one chief cause of its check in the past.

William Preece, ‘Domestic Electric Lighting’ [Address to the Society of Arts], 1886.

Considering, then, that the household is in itself the condensed history of a nation's past, the centre of its present, and the cradle of its future, it is doubtful whether, among the many triumphs of the age that electricity may claim, any can be quoted of brighter renown than the rapid progress it has already made in the cultivation of the arts of life, and its adaptation to the needs and graces of the household.

A. E. Kennelly, ‘Electricity in the Household’, Scribner's Magazine, 1889.

In its earliest decades, civic electrification was closely associated with futurity: wherever the electric light dawned, so the story goes, modernity was at hand. As David Nye shows in Electrifying America, this resulted from electrical promoters’ (apparently) confident forecast that coming decades would bring a utopia wrought by convenient electrical utilities and household devices. Though no licensed clairvoyant, Thomas Edison was among the most vocal on this theme, prophesying among other things, that electricity would bring the ending of night, the intellectual equality of men and women, and even the end of sleep. Above all, as Edison's associate Arthur Kennelly wrote in 1889 for Scribner's, the American home, the ‘cradle’ of the nation's future, would be the greatest beneficiary of this transition.

Type
Chapter
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Domesticating Electricity
Technology, Uncertainty and Gender, 1880–1914
, pp. 121 - 152
Publisher: Pickering & Chatto
First published in: 2014

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