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The Mystery of Electricity

John W. Pinkerton


I must have been about six years old when I had my first meaningful encounter with electricity.  I was shocked.

We had just moved into a different house, and in Mom’s haste to make it shipshape, she quickly assembled my bed, and as I recall, I slept quite well that first night.

In the morning when I awoke, I was staring at the light fixture clamped to the headboard which seemed to be a little different: the bulb was not in its socket.  Cautiously I lifted a finger toward the fixture and inserted it in the empty hole which only yesterday held a lightbulb.  Needless to say, I didn’t do that again.

Lots of fellows, William Gilbert, Otto von Guericke, Robert Boyle, Stephen Gray, C. G. du Fay, and Galvani---and a bunch of other folks whose names you would not recognize tinkered and toyed with electricity going back in history to the Egyptians, and I’m pretty sure more than one shocked themselves as I did on that fateful morning.

But for the everyman, it really didn’t touch him until the early 20th Century. 

But I’m pretty sure you know the name “Thomas Edison,”  the fellow who invented the practical lightbulb along with a gillion other things.  Apparently Edison had a pretty good publicist, but, in recent years, Tesla has made a comeback in the public eye.  After all we’re using his system, alternating current instead of Edison’s direct current.  Well, that little thing of Edison killing an elephant to try to make his point that Tesla’s alternating current wasn’t safe might have tarnished Edison’s image.

A little boy shocking himself with alternating current seems a small sacrifice to make when one considers that alternating current was easily sent long distances; whereas, direct current would have required many, many stations to boost the electricity across a county let alone a state or a country.

By the time I came along in ’42, electricity was available in most urban locations.  If you lived in the country, you might still be using kerosene lamps.  Uncle Jack and Aunt Gussie, who lived way out in the country, didn’t have electricity available to them until some time in the 50’s.  To celebrate the arrival, they built a new home to accommodate the blessings of electricity.

After the lightbulb, there were many other applications of electricity: refrigerators, air conditioners, tools, early and current cars, radios, phonographs, recorders, televisions, computers, telephones...holy crap!  I think the Tesla guy was on to something.

Although electricity and the applications of it have been around since before I was born, I don’t understand it;  yeah, yeah, I’ve seen the charts and read the explanations, but I still don’t get it.  When I was remodeling my house, I borrowed a book from a friend, A Boys Book of Electricity.  I have no pride: it worked and the wiring went reasonably well.  I say reasonably because occasionally I would blow up a rheostat or melt a screwdriver or wire a ceilng fan incorrectly (The damn Chinese can’t write instructions for...uh, manure.)  The way I tested to see if my wiring had been done correctly was to have Linda stand in the house near the new wiring while I went outside to flip the switch.  The system was flawless: if there was an explosion, I made a mistake; if not, it was fine.

Apparently I am not the only person who didn’t understand electricity.  Some early users of electricity in their homes were afraid to unplug an appliance being afraid that the electricity would leak out.

At least I know this isn’t true...right?