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Technology and Society: A Study Examining Science Fiction Novels in the Early 19th and 20th Centuries: History of Electricity

Three science fiction novels are analyzed to show the relationship between technology and society in the 19th and 20th centuries.

A Brief History of Electricity: Why is this Important?

The development of electricity, and the increasing popularity and use of it changed the world and how it works. By rocking the very foundation of how humans live their everyday lives. Electricity brought with it a new awareness for the everyday parts of life that could be changed by this new technology. However, as with most scientific developments, there can be hesitation and concerns along with something as crucial as electricity has become in our everyday lives.

Electricity

The thought of electricity started with the discovery of magnetism in the early 1600s. Technically, people were using magnets for hundreds of years before that. Specifically for maritime exploration. This led into further scientific research, which included some of the first few science experiments to dabble with electricity occured in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These experiments had to do with static electricity. One of the first experiments, was Otto von Guericke’s machine. This machine produced, what we call today, static electricity. This experiment yielded one of the highest electrical amounts at the time in which it was created. Von Guericke even noticed how the electricity could be “transmitted several feet over a piece of string.” This paved the way for further experiments that emphasized the further research on electricity.

Eventually, electricity became more popular within the scientific community. It was sometimes called “the invisible energy”, as electricity did not did have a visible presence. The World’s Fair dominated the increasing popularity behind electricity at the time. Specifically, the telegraph was one of the first technologies that really increased the popularity of electricity. Electricity was appealing in that it was not as “dirty” as previous means of ways that electricity was previously used. For example, many means of heat and light required fire, or some sort of steam and/or smoke. Electricity eliminated this negative externality of energy to affect those around that energy source. Therefore, electricity was favored because it was thought of as invisible, or in a way, clean.

Batteries

One scientific debate centered around electricity (and one that is used as an example in this project) is the Volta vs. Galvani debate on animal electricity. Part of this debate was figuring out what exactly electricity was (or is). It was hypothesized that electricity was a type of fluid. Which could help explain the way it seemed to flow through different materials. Galvani assumed that the electricity came from the animal itself, thus terming the name “animal electricity.” However, Volta disagreed. In retaliation to Galvani’s frog experiments, Volta started to build the “Volta’s Pile”  in order to argue against Galvani’s results on animal electricity. Volta’s Pile can be considered a prototype for a battery. Though it did work, it did not produce as much electricity as desired. Therefore, it was a great influencer to the experiments that happened with batteries a bit later on, such as the Wollaston’s Pile, for example.