The fear that Adams expressed about the mysterious industrial apparatus of electricity was not unlike the superstitious anxieties that Thomas Edison had observed among his workforce some 30 years earlier. According to Edison, when his electrified cables were to be buried underground, “the Irish laborers of the day were afraid of the devils in the wires”. This perception of electricity’s supernatural power is probably what lay behind Edison’s epithet, the ‘Wizard of Menlo Park’.
It may seem ironic that the mysterious qualities of electricity – its invisibility and immateriality, its silent power and intangible force – prompted such fears and also inspired enchantment and wonder. Yet electricity is full of ambiguities: its death-dealing and life-giving force, its capacity to illuminate and to extinguish, to heal and to inflict pain, to reawaken and to annihilate. Thunderous lightning, electric eels, galvanised corpses, floodlit facades and monumental machinery have forged the most profound emotions in human beings. Through the words and images of those who have encountered its enigmatic and inscrutable power – whether poets, historians, engineers or scientists – we can begin to understand how electricity has shaped our deepest feelings.