Electricity is often called wonderful, beautiful; but… the beauty of electricity or of any other force is not that the power is mysterious, and unexpected, touching every sense at unawares in turn, but that it is under law, and that the taught intellect can govern it largely.
It might come as no surprise that Michael Faraday, one of the most influential scientists in the history of electricity, would declare a rational foundation for the thrilling force to which he dedicated much of his life. Though he dismissed emotional responses, there were many people for whom electricity still inspired awe, surprise, astonishment and terror: the feelings we often characterise as the sublime. Experimentation and research on electricity, which began in earnest in the 18th century, came to understand it and harness its forces, but electricity continued to arouse the passions and the imagination – in Faraday’s time and well beyond.
Atmospheric electrical phenomena such as thunder, lightning and auroras inspired fear and fascination for millennia, long before their connection to electricity was understood. Thunder and lightning were associated with the gods, from Zeus of the Ancient Greeks and Thor of the Norse pagans to the Japanese Raijin. They usually signified divine displeasure and punishment for human wrongdoing. Lightning’s symbolic significance as God’s power and sovereignty over humankind continued in the Judaeo-Christian tradition:
His lightning lights up the world; the earth sees and trembles.