Electric Universe: The Shocking True Story of Electricity
© 2005 David Bodanis
Every now and again, I misjudge a book and find it a superior surprise. I picked Electric Universe up thinking to read an introduction to electricity, but found instead a rich history detailing the human discovery — and use of — electricity which contains stories of curiosity, intellectual courage, romance, adventure, and wartime bravado. In addition to providing clear, picturesque descriptions of how electrical processes work, Bodanis examines how electricity has changed society as a whole from the Gilded Age to the Computer Age.
Electric Universe is truly a multi-genre book. I checked it out for the science, as my understanding of electricity is somewhat dim. Like Brian Silver in The Ascent of Science, Bodanis is talented at making electricity understandable at its most basic level, then applying that explanation to technological applications. The science continues throughout the book, culminating in a chapter on biological nervous systems. Bodanis places a great deal of emphasis on the scientists and technicians who sought to understand and use the hidden powers in nature to illuminate, link together, and revolutionize the world. I never knew that Edison was a patent-breaking scoundrel, nor did I realize that Nazi Germany had its own sophisticated version of radar. How has a movie not been made of the daring Würzburg raid, in which a scientist parachuted into occupied Europe, escorted by grizzled paratroopers, to take over a German radar installation, learn its secrets, and return to England? There’s even a film-worthy moment of all-on-the-line drama when the raiders’ retreat is blocked by German machine gunners, who are defeated the last moments by the reappearance of previously lost Scottish highlanders, firing their rifles and yelling out old Gaelic battle-cries.
Modern society is entirely impossible without electricity and the various technologies — like radio and computers — which developed from its understanding. The transformation of society through these technologies fascinates, and Electric Universe is a history of that transformation with human-interest stories to spare. I read it in two sittings, pausing only to go to bed for the night, and consider Bodanis an author of interest for the future. Electric Universe is a definite recommendation.