Playing With Fire: Histories of the Lightning Rod

Author Peter Heering, Oliver Hochadel, et al.
Condition Very Good
Cover Type Softback

This collection of historical and scientific studies shows the impressive significance of the invention, development, and use of the lightning rod in the past 250 years. The rod was a device long taken to be a symbol of enlightenment and utility, judged by some commentators the very first practical application of the experimental physical sciences to truly practical ends; opposition to its introduction was similarly taken to be a sign of obscurantism and superstition. These astute and superbly illustrated studies offer and richer account, tracing the lightning rod’s geographical scope through Europe and the Americas and its cultural and aesthetic meanings, including the major changes in sense of lightning and atmospheric electricity in nineteenth and twentieth century societies. Above all, the essays provide clear evidence that this was by no means a sudden and uncontested achievement of pure science nor a self-evident triumph of reason over its enemies. The contributors explore the shifts in design, experiment and theory to which work on atmospheric electricity, telegraphy, and power generation was subjected. They explore major themes that remain of pressing contemporary interest: the conflicted character of scientific expertise; the management of risk and environmental threats; the relation between the public and specialist authorities; and the use of technology to manage a changing and often dangerous world. The book will fascinate readers concerned with the history and prospects of the sciences, technology, and the environment.—Simon Schaffer, University of Cambridge

Playing with Fire shows how a simple metal rod became a complex and contradictory icon of enlightenment. Moving beyond its storied revolutionary symbolism, these essays skillfully explore the range of techniques, experiments, and publics that fashioned conductors and their varied meanings across time and space. Englightenment propagandists displayed talismanic faith in the lightning rod’s ability to calmly tame not only forces of natural destruction but also superstitious fear of a vengeful god. What these studies brilliantly demonstrate, however, is just how contested, puzzling and dangerous these devices often proved among early experimenters and their audiences. This is an intriguing and entertaining secret history of one of modernity’s most cherished technoscientific objects