Cover image for Dark light : electricity and anxiety from the telegraph to the X-ray
Dark light : electricity and anxiety from the telegraph to the X-ray
Simon, Linda, 1946-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
Orlando : Harcourt, [2004]

Physical Description:
357 pages ; 22 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
TK17 .S56 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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The modern world imagines that the invention of electricity was greeted with great enthusiasm. But in 1879, Americans reacted to the advent of electrification with suspicion and fear. Forty years after Thomas Edison invented the incandescent bulb, only 20 percent of American families had wired their homes. Meanwhile, electrotherapy emerged as a popular medical treatment for everything from depression to digestive problems. Why did Americans welcome electricity into their bodies even as theykept it from their homes? And what does their reaction to technological innovation then have to teach us about our reaction to it today?

In Dark Light , Linda Simon offers the first cultural history that delves into those questions, using newspapers, novels, and other primary sources. Tracing fifty years of technological transformation, from Morse's invention of the telegraph to Roentgen's discovery of X rays, she has created a revealing portrait of an anxious age.

Author Notes

Linda Simon is a professor of English at Skidmore College

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

College literature professor Simon presents a cultural history of the invention of electricity in the late 1800s. Simon extensively researched electricity's reception in journalism and in fiction inspired by inventions such as the telegraph and the telephone. While also expounding on the machinery of the gadgets in question, Simon tends to explore their connections to ideas then current about health. This was the age of vitalism and spiritualism, when electricity was regarded as the force of life and the substance of the soul. The career of a doctor famous in the 1870s, George Beard, strikes the author as the equal of Edison's in the proselytization of electricity. He invented the disease neurasthenia, treated it with electrotherapy, and wrote about health in precursors to the self-help medical book. His popularity derived from patients' willingness to let electricity into their bodies, which contrasts with their wariness about having it in their homes. Readers drawn to technology's cultural history will be intrigued by Simon's eclectic work. --Gilbert Taylor Copyright 2004 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

This, well, illuminating social history of the introduction of electric power in 19th-century America illustrates a thesis that has resonance today: that the introduction of any potentially transforming technology creates a tension between desirable changes in day-to-day life and the anxiety that follows any step into the unknown. In following that tension, Simon shows how the belief that electricity was a fundamental life force fostered various forms, many bizarre, of "electrotherapy" in the service of sexual fulfillment, mental health and contact with the world of the dead-whom mesmerists of the day even believed could be reanimated with electricity. Simon is an English professor at Skidmore College and biographer of such literary figures as William James, and her literary background is both a strength and a weakness. She shows little interest in how electricity works, but she is quite deft at exploring through novels and short stories how 19th-century society viewed the promises and perceived dangers of a world filled with electrical devices. Unfortunately, Simon spends too much time on the mesmerists and not enough on the development of useful electrical inventions and their integration into common use. On the other hand, Morse's development of the telegraph and Edison's many inventions are stories that benefit from Simon's good eye for the intrigue, politicking and hucksterism that surrounded these innovations. Agent, Elaine Markson. (July) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Dark Light is a book about the anxiety generated by the application of electricity for consumer and therapeutic uses in 19th-century society. Although many people of the era recognized the potential of this new form of energy to improve their health and daily living, they also feared the consequences of its use. Simon (Skidmore College) analyzes this anxiety by examining the effects of the use of electricity on popular 19th-century beliefs in vitalism, spiritualism, and science. Her analysis raises questions about the source of life, the nature of the soul, the power of the will, and the limits of science. Simon's frequent analysis of novels of the period is instructive in presenting her case, but the scope of her analysis is broad, and the book sometimes loses its crisp focus. Also, one wishes that she had extended her analysis of the lessons learned from the introduction of electricity in 19th-century society to the problems of the introduction of technological innovation in contemporary society. Certainly, there have been more comprehensive treatments of the social impacts of electrification--David E. Nye's magnificent Electrifying America (CH, Jun'91) comes immediately to mind. Yet, Simon's analysis, particularly the medical, psychological, and metaphysical effects of electricity, is both entertaining and illuminating. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. All levels. D. M. Gilbert Maine Maritime Academy



Working Great MischiefThe electric telegraph is the miracle of modern times . . . a man may generate a spark at London which, with one fiery leap, will return back under his hand and disappear, but in that moment of time it will have encompassed the planet on which we are whirling through space into eternity. That spark will be a human thought!The Times, London, October 1856When he was twenty-three, Samuel Finley Breese Morse wrote to his parents from England, where he had been studying and practicing art for two years, defying their wishes that he become a bookseller at home in Massachusetts. Morse had just received an Adelphi Gold Medal for a statuette of Hercules, and Dying Hercules, his painting of the same subject, recently had been exhibited at the Royal Academy. Despite these achievements he was well aware, as were his parents, of the challenges that any artist faced simply in making a living. If those challenges were not quite Herculean, surely they seemed, at the time, heroic. "I need not tell you what a difficult profession I have undertaken," he wrote. "It has difficulties in itself which are sufficient to deter any man who has not firmness enough to go through with it at all hazards, without meeting with any obstacles aside from it."1In 1815, Morse returned to America, where he believed he would face even more obstacles as a professional artist than in Europe. "I should like to be the greatest painter purely out of revenge," he proclaimed.2 Awaiting recognition of his greatness, he opened an art studio in Boston; but clients did not flock to his door, and he resorted to a path he had hoped not to take: cultivating a career as a portrait painter. By the time he married in 1818, he had earned considerable renown, attracting commissions from politicians, college presidents, statesmen, and other public figures. Along the way, he also dabbled in inventing: he devised a fire engine water pump, which unfortunately failed; and a marble-cutting machine, which he could not patent because it infringed upon another inventor's design.In February 1825, Morse was in Washington, painting a portrait of General Lafayette, when his wife, at the age of twenty-five, suddenly died a month after giving birth to their son. By the time Morse received the shocking news and returned to New Haven, where she had been living with his parents, the family already had buried her. This was not the first time that delay in receiving a message had caused Morse distress: while he was in England studying, letters to his family went astray, or their letters to him failed to arrive, generating suspicion and worry for all parties.After his wife's death, followed by his father's death the next year and his mother's in 1828, Morse fell into a depression. Like many of his contemporaries, he sought solace in travel abroad, and in 1829, leaving his children with relatives, he sailed to Europe to paint, study, and revive his spirits. Three years later, he sailed home. Excerpted from Dark Light: Electricity and Anxiety from the Telegraph to the X-Ray by Linda Simon All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Introductionp. 1
Part I Wonders
1 Working Great Mischiefp. 27
2 Beneficencep. 48
3 Wilderness of Wiresp. 70
4 Nerve Juicep. 96
5 Sparksp. 123
Part II Gravings of the Heart
6 The Inconstant Batteryp. 143
7 Haunted Brainsp. 168
8 The Inscrutable Somethingp. 195
Part III Electrostrikes
9 Live Wiresp. 219
10 Magical Keysp. 246
11 Dark Lightp. 272
Appreciationp. 301
Notesp. 303
Bibliographyp. 323
Indexp. 347