For centuries, electricity was viewed as little more than a curious property of certain substances that sparked when rubbed. Then, in the 1790s, Alessandro Volta began the scientific investigation that ignited an explosion of knowledge and invention, transforming our world. The force that once seemed inconsequential was revealed to be responsible for everything from the structure of the atom to the functioning of our brains.
When my father was a little boy, in a village in Poland before the First World War, an electricity blackout wouldn’t have been especially important. There were no cars, which meant there were no traffic lights to fail, and there were no refrigerators – just blocks of ice or cool rooms – so food wouldn’t suddenly spoil either. A very few rich people would find their electric lights going off if the generators stopped working in their homes, and the single telegraph line that passed through the town might stop operating, but by and large daily life would continue as it had before.
By the time his family had migrated to Canada, and then to Chicago in the early 1920s, a big power outage would have been different. People would still have been able to buy things – there were no credit cards that depended on computers to verify them – but the street cars that workers used to get to factories wouldn’t run. The telephones that offices depended on wouldn’t work either, and the skyscrapers that the city was so proud of would quickly have become inaccessible, or at least their upper floors would, as their elevators failed too. It still wouldn’t be a complete catastrophe. Farm crops could still be raised – there weren’t many tractors – and coal-fired trains and steam-driven ships would have kept the city pretty well supplied.
Today though? I live in London now, where people can be pretty phlegmatic, but I wouldn’t want to be around for a complete blackout. Most radios and TVs plug in these days, so it would be difficult to find out whether your kids’ school was still open. Your cell phones might still operate, but with no way of recharging your battery, you’d be pretty careful about using it. Driving the kids to school on the off chance it was open would be too much of a gamble, for gas stations depend on underground storage tanks, and until the blackout ended, stations wouldn’t be able to use their electrically operated pumps to bring up more fuel. You couldn’t stock up on groceries – no credit cards working – nor could you get more cash, for ATMs depend on electrically-run computers too.
Within a week the city would have broken down. Police stations would be isolated with their phones not working, and pretty soon their radio batteries would lose their charge as well; no one could call ambulances, for their radios or phone links would be out too. A few people might try walking to hospitals, but there wouldn’t be much there: no X-rays, no refrigerated vaccines, no refrigerated blood, no ventilation, no lighting.
Going to the airport to try to escape wouldn’t help, for with backup generators not working, the airport’s radars would have shut, nor could planes take off on manual control, for any fuel that remained in underground tanks would be impossible to pump up. Ports would have closed, with no electricity to run the cranes that moved their large containers and no way to check electronic inventories. The military might try to guard fuel convoys, but with their own vehicles running low on fuel, that wouldn’t last long. If the blackout was worldwide, isolation would intensify. The internet and all email would have gone down very quickly; next the phone lines; finally, the last television and radio broadcasts would end.
Starvation would probably begin in the dense cities of Asia, especially with no air conditioning at food warehouses; within a few weeks of a complete blackout almost all the world’s cities and suburbs would be unlivable. There would be fighting, pretty desperate, for food and fuel. With a population of six billion, few people would have a chance of surviving.
What if it were not only our supply of electricity that stopped, but the very existence of electrical forces as well? All the Earth’s oceans would gush upwards and evaporate as the electrical bond between water molecules broke apart. DNA strands within our body would no longer hold together. Any air-breathing organism that was still intact would begin to suffocate, for without electrical attraction the oxygen molecules in air would bounce uselessly off the hemoglobin molecules in blood.
The ground itself would open up and begin to melt as the electrical forces that hold the silicates and other substances of our planet together let go. Mountains would collapse into the voids left where the continental plates had torn apart. In the last moments, a few living beings would see the sun itself switch off, as our star’s electrically-carried light abruptly stopped and the world’s very last day turned to night.
As the Victorian era dawned, very little was known about electricity: just that two metals, when positioned near each other, could sometimes produce some sort of sparking current within a wire connecting them. It seemed a weak, merely curious phenomenon. But it was the first useful door into a world that had been sealed and hidden.
In this book I show what happened as humankind opened that door, which has taken a mere two centuries. The first part looks at the Victorian researchers who had only a few, tenuous glimpses of electricity, yet from that created devices never before imagined. There were telephones and telegraphs and light bulbs; roller coasters and fast street cars. One distressed telephone executive apparently remarked that Americans had become the first people who would interrupt sex to take a phone call. There was even an electrical fax machine operating efficiently in France in the 1850s – before the battles of the American Civil War.
Technology might have stopped there, but in the mid-1800s two of England’s greatest scientists opened the door to electricity’s domain a crack wider. They found that the electricity sizzling through wires doesn’t move along on its own. There’s something else, a rush of unseen waves, that carries it along. In the second part of the book, I show that all the space around us – from the air above, to our flesh within – is filled with millions of such flying, invisible waves.
The idea is so strange that it took a giant engineering project, deep under the cold waters of the Atlantic, to convince the majority of researchers that it was true. Before the nineteenth century was out, though, the determined Heinrich Hertz in Germany found ways to release these waves from being trapped inside copper wires, and send them flying free. This discovery led to the first experiments with cell phones (and a primitive mobile phone was operating on London’s Portland Place in 1879, outside the present-day BBC Broadcasting House). A few decades afterwards, television and radar took shape as well, hitching a ride with the same invisible waves. In the second and third parts of the book, I show how those waves were used: first for peace, then – with radar – for war.
In the fourth part of the book I show how wild teleporting jumps of electrons came to be used in the century’s first huge thinking machine, and ultimately in the microchips now operating daily inside mobile phones, passenger jets, oil well pumps, and all the other devices which our imagined blackout showed are so important.
Electricity also operates in our own private thinking machines – the human brain – and the book ends with a section showing how this was discovered, leading to pill which when swallowed actually turn into liquid electricity which can shape our very mood.
The stories along the way take us from Hamburg cellars during a World War II firestorm to the mind of Alan Turing, brilliant computer inventor, hounded by the authorities of the very country he’d saved; from an exuberant twenty-something immigrant to America, Alexander Bell, desperate to capture the love of a deaf teenage student, to the forty-something Robert Watson Watt, just as desperate to escape from a boring marriage and the tedium of 1930s Slough. All illuminate how the immense force of electricity was led out from its hidden domain – and what we, imperfect humans, have made of the enhanced powers it has granted us.