Thursday, June 25, 2009

Power Struggles: Scientific Authority and the Creation of Practical Electricity Before Edison

By Michael Brian Schiffer. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, September 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-262-19582-9, $38. 440 pages.

Review by Yves Laberge, Université Laval, Québec City, Canada

Officially, in most history books, we read that electricity as we know it was "invented" in 1882, in New York City. However, in his book Power Struggles: Scientific Authority and the Creation of Practical Electricity Before Edison, anthropologist Michael Brian Schiffer (from the University of Arizona) reminds us that the invention of electricity is the culminating step of many technologies, and not just one finding by a sole person, namely Thomas Edison. In fact, "the first age of electricity awaited neither Thomas Edison's genius and perspiration nor J. Pierpont Morgan's largess" (11). The truth is: the first electrical devices were created by Benjamin Franklin during the eighteenth century, but "he did not patent anything," as Schiffer indicates (11). However, Power Struggles is not just a book for historians of science about the pre-Edison electrical technologies or a technical guide about electricity works; it is also a timely reflection regarding the construction of a "scientific authority," understood here as "a person represented as having pertinent expertise in science or engineering science" (8). The author is somehow skeptical towards science as a pure ideal; he rather argues that "scientific authorities could become embroiled in heated controversies and power struggles" (9).
There are 22 chapters in this book. The first half is a detailed overview of the evolution of science, technology, and electricity during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, covering important innovations such as Claude Chappe's electrostatic telegraph (41), Faraday's galvanometer (50), Ampère, Morse (146), Davenport's patented motor from 1837 (70), and many others. Even though there are no new scientific or historical facts in these sections, we follow Michael Schiffer through his anthropological reasoning whenever revisiting this history of science during the nineteenth century. For example, the author describes in many cases the role of media in the public's awareness, representations, and expectations for new discoveries: "Because newspapers often reprinted each others' articles, the exciting prospects of electric motors — the safe and supposedly inexpensive power of the future — eventually made their way to the far corners of America" (109). From a methodological point of view, Schiffer often focuses on the public understanding of science and technology, referring to numerous articles published in American magazines about science during the nineteenth century, especially Scientific American (see 182-84, 197, and note 27 on 319). Another example of Schiffer's anthropological thinking is the comparison he makes between nations and governments in terms of their strategies for research and public involvement. He shows that priorities in term of research were not the same in the USA and Western Europe during the nineteenth century: "When European nations again took an interest in the technology, experiments were almost always initiated by governments, sometimes in secret. However, that was not the case in the United States" (121). Schiffer considers as well the dynamics and social impact of institutions and private guilds like Trinity House in England, which was granted control of all lighthouses by the British Parliament in 1836 (207). In other words, seeing how science was perceived by political leaders in other countries makes the reader realize how peculiarly inventors were sometimes treated in the United States, either by the government, by the media, by other inventors, or in public opinion — and that is part of what an anthropological reading is about.
The book's second half brings more insight and thoughts, certainly relevant today, about current issues in science and technology. The author mainly concentrates on four countries: the USA, England, France, and (to a lesser degree) Germany. One impressive aspect of Power Struggles is the number and quality of the endnotes, which are very instructive (317-383). Some elements discussed in the endnotes could even have been included in the core text: for example, a timely remark by Schiffer about how Mechanical Magazine seemed to reject the essential contribution of French inventor Joule in 1858 (note 70 on 350). The author's style is vivid; the b/w tables and figures are always clear. The only notable drawback is the book's last chapter, which is not really a conclusion, but a discussion about Edison's last inventions and his famous stubbornness. A more anthropological conclusion would have been welcome, because the author brought so many interesting insights to the previous chapters. Although there are "little conclusions" at the end of most chapters, there are no general conclusions at the end of the book. But despite of this minor quibble, Power Struggles should be seen as an interesting piece in domains such as the anthropology of science, the sociology of technological innovation, American Studies, and the history of technologies. The author's discussion about the constitution of a "scientific authority" in the USA and elsewhere should not be seen as exclusive to the late nineteenth century, as this concept of scientific authority — plus some related concepts like the public understanding of science and technology — are still used nowadays in order to study (and criticize) how science is made, understood, praised and challenged in the twenty-first century. In that sense, Schiffer's theoretical framework remains accurate or adaptable for other topics and related researches.

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