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A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders: Electricity and Enlightenment in Early America

A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders: Electricity and Enlightenment in Early America

by James DelbourgoJames Delbourgo


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Benjamin Franklin's invention of the lightning rod is the founding fable of American science, but Franklin was only one of many early Americans fascinated by electricity. As a dramatically new physical experience, electricity amazed those who dared to tame the lightning and set it coursing through their own bodies. Thanks to its technological and medical utility, but also its surprising ability to defy rational experimental mastery, electricity was a powerful experience of enlightenment, at once social, intellectual, and spiritual.

In this compelling book, James Delbourgo moves beyond Franklin to trace the path of electricity through early American culture, exploring how the relationship between human, natural, and divine powers was understood in the eighteenth century. By examining the lives and visions of natural philosophers, spectacular showmen, religious preachers, and medical therapists, he shows how electrical experiences of wonder, terror, and awe were connected to a broad array of cultural concerns that defined the American Enlightenment. The history of lightning rods, electrical demonstrations, electric eels, and medical electricity reveals how early American science, medicine, and technology were shaped by a culture of commercial performance, evangelical religion, and republican politics from mid-century to the early republic.

The first book to situate early American experimental science in the context of a transatlantic public sphere, A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders offers a captivating view of the origins of American science and the cultural meaning of the American Enlightenment. In a story of shocks and sparks from New England to the Caribbean, Delbourgo brilliantly illuminates a revolutionary New World of wonder.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780674022997
Publisher: Harvard
Publication date: 10/15/2006
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

James Delbourgo is the James Westfall Thompson Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Introduction: Seizing the Lightning

1. Atlantic Circuits

2. Lightning Rods and the Direction of Nature

3. Wonderful Recreations

4. Electrical Politics and Political Electricity

5. How to Handle an Electric Eel

6. Electrical Humanitarianism

7. Electricity as Common Sense

Conclusion: What Is American Enlightenment?


Illustration Sources




1. The Myth of Electricity and Revolution

2. Electricity as an Atlantic Science

3. Electrical Games

4. Generating Enlightenment

5. Illustrating Electricity

6. Heroic Self-Evidence

7. Franklin as a Bookish Natural Philosopher

8. The Exploding Thunder House

9. The Direction of Lightning

10. The Spectacle of Enlightenment

11. Science in the Parlor

12. Franklin as Plenipotentiary

13. Electricity and Revolution

14. The Conspirators

15. An Electric El Dorado

16. The Electric Eel as an Organic Machine

17. Perkins's Tractors: Electricity or Imagination?

What People are Saying About This

Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra

A lucid, original cultural history of electricity in colonial British America. No one until Delbourgo has paid attention to the world of savants, preachers, itinerant merchants, natural philosophers, curiosity mongers, millenarian physicians, and polite audiences amidst whose views on electricity Franklin hammered out innovative theories and experiments. Clearly breaking new ground, Delbourgo uses the science of electricity to shed light on religion to politics to medicine to the nature of the public sphere.
Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, author of How to Write the History of the New World

Simon Schaffer

In a remarkably ambitious and brilliantly executed study, Delbourgo turns the tables on received histories of science, enlightenment, and practical reason in the American colonies. With subtle mastery and ingenious flair, he illuminates a world of mystical piety, commercial medicine, and transatlantic science. This compelling book is for anyone interested in the roots of America's modern sense of science's place and of its crucial attitudes to expertise, authority, and intellectual life.

Simon Schaffer, University of Cambridge

John L. Brooke

Every once in a while, after finishing a work of history, I have the sense that I could have an engaged and engaging conversation with someone in the past. Reading James Delbourgo's book, I had that feeling. He shows that the experience of electricity in all its forms provides a powerful opening onto the experience of the Enlightenment by ordinary people. This wonderful book allows us almost to touch and feel the lost world of emerging science and systematic knowledge.

John L. Brooke, author of The Refiner's Fire

Joyce Chaplin

Does electricity explain everything about the American Enlightenment? James Delbourgo makes a convincing case that it does. A wonderful book on a wonderful topic. Anyone interested in early America's cultural history will learn much from Delbourgo's learned and readable interpretation.

Joyce Chaplin, author of The First Scientific American: Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius

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