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A History of Electricity and Life

Arthur Firstenberg
Chelsea Green Publishing
White River Junction, Vermont
London, UK

Copyright © 2017, 2020 by Arthur Firstenberg.
All rights reserved.
Drawings on pages 3 and 159 copyright © 2017 by Monika Steinhoff.
“Two bees” drawing by Ulrich Warnke, used with permission.
No part of this book may be transmitted or reproduced in any form by any
means without permission in writing from the publisher.
Originally published in 2017 by AGB Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico; Sucre, Bolivia.

This paperback edition published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2020.
Book layout: Jim Bisakowski
Cover design: Ann Lowe
Printed in Canada.
First printing February 2020.
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

20 21 22 23 24

Our Commitment to Green Publishing
Chelsea Green sees publishing as a tool for cultural change and ecological
stewardship. We strive to align our book manufacturing practices with our
editorial mission and to reduce the impact of our business enterprise in the
environment. We print our books and catalogs on chlorine-free recycled paper,
using vegetable-based inks whenever possible. This book may cost slightly more
because it was printed on paper that contains recycled fiber, and we hope you’ll
agree that it’s worth it. The Invisible Rainbow was printed on paper supplied by
Marquis that is made of recycled materials and other controlled sources.
Library of Congress Control Number: 2020930536
ISBN 978-1-64502-009-7 (paperback) | 978-1-64502-010-3 (ebook)
Chelsea Green Publishing
85 North Main Street, Suite 120
White River Junction, VT 05001
(802) 295-6300

In memory of Pelda Levey—friend, mentor, and fellow

Author’s Note
FOR EASE OF READING I have kept the
endnotes to a minimum. However, all
sources referred to in the text can be found
in the bibliography at the back of the book,
together with other principal works I have
consulted. For the convenience of those
interested in particular subjects, the
literature in the bibliography is organized
by chapter, and within some chapters by
topic, instead of the usual single
alphabetical listing.

PART I From the Beginning…
1. Captured in a Bottle
2. The Deaf to Hear, and the Lame to Walk

3. Electrical Sensitivity
4. The Road Not Taken
5. Chronic Electrical Illness
6. The Behavior of Plants
7. Acute Electrical Illness
8. Mystery on the Isle of Wight
9. Earth’s Electric Envelope
10. Porphyrins and the Basis of Life
11. Irritable Heart
12. The Transformation of Diabetes
13. Cancer and the Starvation of Life
14. Suspended Animation
15. You mean you can hear electricity?
16. Bees, Birds, Trees, and
Humans Photographs
17. In the Land of the Blind

About the Author

ONCE UPON A TIME, the rainbow visible in the sky after a
storm represented all the colors there were. Our earth was
designed that way. We have a blanket of air above us that
absorbs the higher ultraviolets, together with all of the X-rays
and gamma rays from space. Most of the longer waves, that
we use today for radio communication, were once absent as
well. Or rather, they were there in infinitesimal amounts. They
came to us from the sun and stars but with energies that were a
trillion times weaker than the light that also came from the
heavens. So weak were the cosmic radio waves that they
would have been invisible, and so life never developed organs
that could see them.
The even longer waves, the low-frequency pulsations given
off by lightning, are also invisible. When lightning flashes, it
momentarily fills the air with them, but they are almost gone
in an instant; their echo, reverberating around the world, is
roughly ten billion times weaker than the light from the sun.
We never evolved organs to see this either.
But our bodies know that those colors are there. The
energy of our cells whispering in the radio frequency range is
infinitesimal but necessary for life. Every thought, every
movement that we make surrounds us with low frequency
pulsations, whispers that were first detected in 1875 and are
also necessary for life. The electricity that we use today, the
substance that we send through wires and broadcast through
the air without a thought, was identified around 1700 as a
property of life. Only later did scientists learn to extract it and
make it move inanimate objects, ignoring—because they could
not see—its effects on the living world. It surrounds us today,
in all of its colors, at intensities that rival the light from the
sun, but we still cannot see it because it was not present at
life’s birth.

We live today with a number of devastating diseases that
do not belong here, whose origin we do not know, whose
presence we take for granted and no longer question. What it
feels like to be without them is a state of vitality that we have
completely forgotten.
“Anxiety disorder,” afflicting one-sixth of humanity, did
not exist before the 1860s, when telegraph wires first encircled
the earth. No hint of it appears in the medical literature before
Influenza, in its present form, was invented in 1889, along
with alternating current. It is with us always, like a familiar
guest—so familiar that we have forgotten that it wasn’t always
so. Many of the doctors who were flooded with the disease in
1889 had never seen a case before.
Prior to the 1860s, diabetes was so rare that few doctors
saw more than one or two cases during their lifetime. It, too,
has changed its character: diabetics were once skeletally thin.
Obese people never developed the disease.
Heart disease at that time was the twenty-fifth most
common illness, behind accidental drowning. It was an illness
of infants and old people. It was extraordinary for anyone else
to have a diseased heart.
Cancer was also exceedingly rare. Even tobacco smoking,
in non-electrified times, did not cause lung cancer.
These are the diseases of civilization, that we have also
inflicted on our animal and plant neighbors, diseases that we
live with because of a refusal to recognize the force that we
have harnessed for what it is. The 60-cycle current in our
house wiring, the ultrasonic frequencies in our computers, the
radio waves in our televisions, the microwaves in our cell
phones, these are only distortions of the invisible rainbow that
runs through our veins and makes us alive. But we have
It is time that we remember.


1. Captured in a Bottle
THE EXPERIMENT OF LEYDEN was a craze that was
immense, universal: everywhere you went people would ask
you if you had experienced its effects. The year was 1746. The
place, any city in England, France, Germany, Holland, Italy. A
few years later, America. Like a child prodigy making his
debut, electricity had arrived, and the whole Western world
turned out to hear his performance.
His midwives—Kleist, Cunaeus, Allamand, and
Musschenbroek—warned that they had helped give birth to an
enfant terrible, whose shocks could take away your breath,
boil your blood, paralyze you. The public should have
listened, been more cautious. But of course the colorful reports
of those scientists only encouraged the crowds.
Pieter van Musschenbroek, professor of physics at the
University of Leyden, had been using his usual friction
machine. It was a glass globe that he spun rapidly on its axis
while he rubbed it with his hands to produce the “electric
fluid”—what we know today as static electricity. Hanging
from the ceiling by silk cords was an iron gun barrel, almost
touching the globe. It was called the “prime conductor,” and
was normally used to draw sparks of static electricity from the
rubbed, rotating glass sphere.

Line engraving from Mémoires de l’Académie Royale des Sciences Plate 1, p. 23, 1746

But electricity, in those early days, was of limited use,
because it always had to be produced on the spot and there
was no way to store it. So Musschenbroek and his associates
designed an ingenious experiment—an experiment that
changed the world forever: they attached a wire to the other
end of the prime conductor and inserted it in a small glass
bottle partly filled with water. They wanted to see if the
electric fluid could be stored in a jar. And the attempt
succeeded beyond their wildest expectations.
“I am going to tell you about a new but terrible
experiment,” Musschenbroek wrote to a friend in Paris,
“which I advise you never to try yourself, nor would I, who

have experienced it and survived by the grace of God, do it
again for all the Kingdom of France.” He held the bottle in his
right hand, and with the other hand he tried to draw sparks
from the gun barrel. “Suddenly my right hand was hit with
such force, that my whole body shook as though struck by
lightning. The glass, although thin, did not break, and my hand
was not knocked away, but my arm and whole body were
affected more terribly than I can express. In a word, I thought I
was done for.”1 His companion in invention, biologist Jean
Nicolas Sébastien Allamand, when he tried the experiment,
felt a “prodigious blow.” “I was so stunned,” he said, “that I
could not breathe for some moments.” The pain along his right
arm was so intense that he feared permanent injury.2
But only half the message registered with the public. The
fact that people could be temporarily or, as we will see,
permanently injured or even killed by these experiments
became lost in the general excitement that followed. Not only
lost, but soon ridiculed, disbelieved, and forgotten. Then as
now, it was not socially acceptable to say that electricity was
dangerous. Just two decades later, Joseph Priestley, the
English scientist who is famous for his discovery of oxygen,
wrote his History and Present State of Electricity, in which he
mocked the “cowardly professor” Musschenbroek, and the
“exaggerated accounts” of the first experimenters.3
Its inventors were not the only ones who tried to warn the
public. Johann Heinrich Winkler, professor of Greek and Latin
at Leipzig, Germany, tried the experiment as soon as he heard
about it. “I found great convulsions in my body,” he wrote to a
friend in London. “It put my blood into great agitation; so that
I was afraid of an ardent fever; and was obliged to use
refrigerating medicines. I felt a heaviness in my head, as if I
had a stone lying upon it. It gave me twice a bleeding at my
nose, to which I am not inclined. My wife, who had only
received the electrical flash twice, found herself so weak after
it, that she could hardly walk. A week after, she received only

once the electrical flash; a few minutes after it she bled at the
From their experiences Winkler took away the lesson that
electricity was not to be inflicted upon the living. And so he
converted his machine into a great beacon of warning. “I read
in the newspapers from Berlin,” he wrote, “that they had tried
these electrical flashes upon a bird, and had made it suffer
great pain thereby. I did not repeat this experiment; for I think
it wrong to give such pain to living creatures.” He therefore
wrapped an iron chain around the bottle, leading to a piece of
metal underneath the gun barrel. “When then the
electrification is made,” he continued, “the sparks that fly from
the pipe upon the metal are so large and so strong, that they
can be seen (even in the day time) and heard at the distance of
fifty yards. They represent a beam of lightning, of a clear and
compact line of fire; and they give a sound that frightens the
people that hear it.”
The general public did not react as he planned, however.
After reading reports like Musschenbroek’s in the proceedings
of France’s Royal Academy of Sciences, and his own in the
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London,
eager men and women by the thousands, all over Europe, lined
up to give themselves the pleasure of electricity.
Abbé Jean Antoine Nollet, a theologian turned physicist,
introduced the magic of the Leyden jar into France. He tried to
satisfy the insatiable demands of the public by electrifying
tens, hundreds of people at once, having them take each other
by the hand so as to form a human chain, arranged in a large
circle with the two ends close together. He would place
himself at one of the ends, while the person who represented
the last link took hold of the bottle. Suddenly the learned
abbot, touching with his hand the metal wire inserted in the
flask, would complete the circuit and immediately the shock
would be felt simultaneously by the whole line. Electricity had
become a social affair; the world was possessed, as some
observers called it, by “electromania.”

The fact that Nollet had electrocuted several fish and a
sparrow with the same equipment did not deter the crowds in
the least. At Versailles, in the presence of the king, he
electrified a company of 240 soldiers of the French Guard
holding each other by the hands. He electrified a community
of monks at the Carthusian monastery in Paris, stretched out in
a circle more than a mile around, each connected to his
neighbors by iron wires.
The experience became so popular that the public began to
complain of not being able to give themselves the pleasure of
an electric shock without having to wait in line or consult a
physician. A demand was created for a portable apparatus that
everyone could purchase for a reasonable price and enjoy at
their leisure. And so the “Ingenhousz bottle” was invented.
Enclosed in an elegant-looking case, it was a small Leyden jar
joined to a varnished silk ribbon and a rabbit skin with which
to rub the varnish and charge the jar.4
Electric canes were sold, “priced for all pocketbooks.”5
These were Leyden jars cleverly disguised as walking canes,
which you could charge surreptitiously and trick unsuspecting
friends and acquaintances into touching.
Then there was the “electric kiss,” a form of recreation that
even preceded the invention of the Leyden jar but became
much more exciting afterwards. Physiologist Albrecht von
Haller, at the University of Göttingen, declared incredulously
that such parlor games had “taken the place of quadrille.”
“Could one believe,” he wrote, “that a lady’s finger, that her
whale-bone petticoat, should send forth flashes of true
lightning, and that such charming lips could set on fire a

Line engraving c. 1750, reproduced in Jürgen Teichmann, Vom Bernstein zum
Elektron, Deutsches Museum 1982

She was an “angel,” wrote German physicist Georg
Matthias Bose, with “white-swan neck” and “blood-crowned
breasts,” who “steals your heart with a single glance” but
whom you approach at your peril. He called her “Venus
Electrificata” in a poem, published in Latin, French, and
German, that became famous throughout Europe:
If a mortal only touches her hand
Of such a god-child even only her dress,
The sparks burn the same, through all of
one’s limbs,
As painful as it is, he seeks it again.

Even Benjamin Franklin felt compelled to give
instructions: “Let A and B stand on wax; or A on wax and B
on the floor; give one of them the electrised phial in hand; let
the other take hold of the wire; there will be a small spark; but
when their lips approach, they will be struck and shock’d.”6
Wealthy ladies hosted such entertainment in their homes.
They hired instrument makers to craft large, ornate electrical
machines that they displayed like pianos. People of more
moderate means bought off-the-shelf models that were
available in an assortment of sizes, styles, and prices.
Aside from entertainment, electricity, assumed to be
related to or identical with the life force, was used primarily
for its medical effects. Both electrical machines and Leyden
jars found their way into hospitals, and into the offices of
doctors wanting to keep up with the times. An even greater
number of “electricians” who were not medically trained set
up office and began treating patients. One reads of medical
electricity being used during the 1740s and 1750s by
practitioners in Paris, Montpellier, Geneva, Venice, Turin,
Bologna, Leipzig, London, Dorchester, Edinburgh,
Shrewsbury, Worcester, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, Uppsala,
Stockholm, Riga, Vienna, Bohemia, and The Hague.
The famous French revolutionary and doctor Jean-Paul
Marat, also a practitioner of electricity, wrote a book about it
titled Mémoire sur l’électricité médicale (“Memoir on Medical
Franklin treated patients with electricity in Philadelphia—
so many of them that static electric treatments later became
known, in the nineteenth century, as “franklinization.”
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church,
published a 72-page tract in 1759 titled Desideratum; or,
Electricity Made Plain and Useful. He called electricity “the
noblest Medicine yet known in the World,” to be used in
diseases of the nervous system, skin, blood, respiratory
system, and kidneys. “A person standing on the ground,” he

felt obliged to add, “cannot easily kiss an electrified person
standing on the rosin.”7 Wesley himself electrified thousands
of people at the headquarters of the Methodist movement and
at other locations around London.
And it wasn’t just prominent individuals who were setting
up shop. So many non-medical people were buying and
renting machines for medical use that London physician James
Graham wrote, in 1779: “I tremble with apprehension for my
fellow creatures, when I see in almost every street in this great
metropolis a barber – a surgeon – a tooth-drawer – an
apothecary, or a common mechanic turned electrical
Since electricity could initiate contractions of the uterus, it
became a tacitly understood method of obtaining abortions.
Francis Lowndes, for example, was a London electrician with
an extensive practice who advertised that he treated poor
women gratis “for amenorrhea.”9
Even farmers began testing electricity on their crops and
proposing it as a means of improving agricultural production,
as we will see in chapter 6.
The use of electricity on living beings in the eighteenth
century was so widespread in Europe and America that a
wealth of valuable knowledge was collected about its effects
on people, plants, and animals, knowledge that has been
entirely forgotten, that is far more extensive and detailed than
what today’s doctors are aware of, who see daily, but without
recognition, its effects on their patients, and who do not even
know such knowledge ever existed. This information is both
formal and informal—letters from individuals describing their
experiences; accounts written up in newspapers and
magazines; medical books and treatises; papers read at
meetings of scientific societies; and articles published in
newly founded scientific journals.
As early as the 1740s, ten percent of all articles published
in the Philosophical Transactions were related to electricity.

And during the last decade of that century, fully seventy
percent of all articles on electricity in the prestigious Latin
journal, Commentarii de rebus in scientis naturali et medicina
gestis, had to do with its medical uses and its effects on
animals and people.10
But the floodgates were wide open, and the torrent of
enthusiasm about electricity rushed on unhindered, and would
continue to do so during the coming centuries, sweeping
caution against the rocks, crushing hints of danger like so
many bits of driftwood, obliterating whole tracts of knowledge
and reducing them to mere footnotes in the history of

2. The Deaf to Hear, and the
Lame to Walk
A BURMESE ELEPHANT has the same set of genes whether
it toils in a logging camp or runs free in the forest. But its
DNA will not tell you the details of its life. In the same way,
electrons cannot tell us what is most interesting about
electricity. Like elephants, electricity has been forced to bear
our burdens and move great loads, and we have worked out
more or less precisely its behavior while in captivity. But we
must not be fooled into believing we know everything
important about the lives of its wild cousins.
What is the source of thunder and lightning, that causes
clouds to become electrified and discharge their fury upon the
earth? Science still does not know. Why does the earth have a
magnetic field? What makes combed hair frizzy, nylon cling,
and party balloons stick to walls? This most common of all
electrical phenomena is still not well understood. How does
our brain work, our nerves function, our cells communicate?
How is our body’s growth choreographed? We are still
fundamentally ignorant. And the question raised in this book
—“What is the effect of electricity on life?”—is one that
modern science doesn’t even ask. Science’s only concern
today is to keep human exposure be-low a level that will cook
your cells. The effect of nonlethal electricity is something
mainstream science no longer wants to know. But in the
eighteenth century, scientists not only asked the question, but
began to supply answers.
Early friction machines were capable of being charged to
about ten thousand volts—enough to deliver a stinging shock,
but not enough, then or now, to be thought dangerous. By way
of comparison, a person can accumulate thirty thousand volts

on their body in walking across a synthetic carpet. Discharging
it stings, but won’t kill you.
A one-pint Leyden jar could deliver a more powerful
shock, containing about 0.1 joules of energy, but still about a
hundred times less than what is thought to be hazardous, and
thousands of times less than shocks that are routinely delivered
by defibrillators to revive people who are in cardiac arrest.
According to mainstream science today, the sparks, shocks,
and tiny currents used in the eighteenth century should have
had no effects on health. But they did.
Imagine you were a patient in 1750 suffering from arthritis.
Your electrician would seat you in a chair that had glass legs
so that it was well insulated from the ground. This was done so
that when you were connected to the friction machine, you
would accumulate the “electric fluid” in your body instead of
draining it into the earth. Depending on the philosophy of your
electrician, the severity of your disease, and your own
tolerance for electricity, there were a number of ways to
“electrize” you. In the “electric bath,” which was the most
gentle, you would simply hold in your hand a rod connected to
the prime conductor, and the machine would be cranked
continuously for minutes or hours, communicating its charge
throughout your body and creating an electrical “aura” around
you. If this was done gently enough, you would feel nothing—
just as a person who shuffles their feet on a carpet can
accumulate a charge on their body without being aware of it.
After you were thus “bathed,” the machine would be
stopped and you might be treated with the “electric wind.”
Electricity discharges most easily from pointed conductors.
Therefore a grounded, pointed metal or wooden wand would
be brought toward your painful knee and you would again feel
very little—perhaps the sensation of a small breeze as the
charge that had built up in your body slowly dissipated
through your knee into the grounded wand.

For a stronger effect, your electrician might use a wand
with a rounded end, and instead of a continuous current draw
actual sparks from your ailing knee. And if your condition
were severe—say your leg was paralyzed—he could charge up
a small Leyden jar and give your leg a series of strong shocks.
Electricity was available in two flavors: positive, or
“vitreous” electricity, obtained by rubbing glass, and negative,
or “resinous” electricity, originally obtained by rubbing sulfur
or various resins. Your electrician would most likely treat you
with positive electricity, as it was the variety normally found
on the surface of the body in a state of health.
The goal of electrotherapy was to stimulate health by
restoring the electrical equilibrium of the body where it was
out of balance. The idea was certainly not new. In another part
of the world, the use of natural electricity had been developed
to a fine art over thousands of years. Acupuncture needles, as
we will see in chapter 9, conduct atmospheric electricity into
the body, where it travels along precisely mapped pathways,
returning to the atmosphere through other needles that
complete the circuit. By comparison electrotherapy in Europe
and America, although similar in concept, was an infant
science, using instruments that were like sledgehammers.
European medicine in the eighteenth century was full of
sledgehammers. If you went to a conventional doctor for your
rheumatism, you might expect to be bled, purged, vomited,
blistered, and even dosed with mercury. It’s easy to understand
that going to an electrician instead might seem a very
attractive alternative. And it remained attractive until the
beginning of the twentieth century.
After more than half a century of unceasing popularity,
electrotherapy fell temporarily out of favor during the early
1800s in reaction to certain cults, one of which had grown up
in Europe around Anton Mesmer and his so-called “magnetic”
healing, and another in America around Elisha Perkins and his
“electric” tractors—three-inch-long metallic pencils with

which one made passes over a diseased part of the body.
Neither man used actual magnets or electricity at all, but they
gave both those methods, for a while, a bad name. By midcentury electricity was again mainstream, and in the 1880s ten
thousand American physicians were administering it to their
Electrotherapy finally fell permanently out of favor in the
early twentieth century, perhaps, one suspects, because it was
incompatible with what was then going on in the world.
Electricity was no longer a subtle force that had anything to do
with living things. It was a dynamo, capable of propelling
locomotives and executing prisoners, not curing patients. But
sparks delivered by a friction machine, a century and a half
before the world was wired, carried quite different
There is no doubt that electricity sometimes cured diseases,
both major and minor. The reports of success, over almost two
centuries, were sometimes exaggerated, but they are too
numerous and often too detailed and well-attested to dismiss
them all. Even in the early 1800s, when electricity was not in
good repute, reports continued to emerge that cannot be
ignored. For example, the London Electrical Dispensary,
between September 29, 1793, and June 4, 1819, admitted
8,686 patients for electrical treatment. Of these, 3,962 were
listed as “cured,” and another 3,308 as “relieved” when they
were discharged—an 84 percent success rate.1
Although the main focus of this chapter will be on effects
that are not necessarily beneficial, it is important to remember
why eighteenth century society was enthralled with electricity,
just as we are today. For almost three hundred years the
tendency has been to chase its benefits and dismiss its harms.
But in the 1700s and 1800s, the daily use of electricity in
medicine was a constant reminder, at least, that electricity was
intimately connected with biology. Here in the West,
electricity as a biological science remains in its infancy today,

and even its cures have been long forgotten. I will recall just
one of them.
Making the Deaf Hear
In 1851, the great neurologist Guillaume Benjamin Duchenne
de Boulogne achieved renown for something for which he is
least remembered today. A well-known figure in the history of
medicine, he was certainly no quack. He introduced modern
methods of physical examination that are still in use. He was
the first physician ever to take a biopsy from a living person
for the purpose of diagnosis. He published the first accurate
clinical description of polio. A number of diseases that he
identified are named for him, most notably Duchenne
muscular dystrophy. He is remembered for all those things.
But in his own time he was the somewhat unwilling center of
attention for his work with the deaf.
Duchenne knew the anatomy of the ear in great detail, in
fact it was for the purpose of elucidating the function of the
nerve called the chorda tympani, which passes through the
middle ear, that he asked a few deaf people to volunteer to be
the subjects of electrical experiments. The incidental and
unexpected improvement in their hearing caused Duchenne to
be inundated with requests from within the deaf community to
come to Paris for treatments. And so he began to minister to
large numbers of people with nerve deafness, using the same
apparatus that he had designed for his research, which fit
snugly into the ear canal and contained a stimulating electrode.
His procedure, to a modern reader, might seem unlikely to
have had any effect at all: he exposed his patients to pulses of
the feeblest possible current, spaced half a second apart, for
five seconds at a time. Then he gradually increased the current
strength, but never to a painful level, and never for more than
five seconds at a time. And yet by this means he restored good
hearing, in a matter of days or weeks, to a 26-year-old man
who had been deaf since age ten, a 21-year-old man who had
been deaf since he had measles at age nine, a young woman

recently made deaf by an overdose of quinine, given for
malaria, and numerous others with partial or complete hearing
Fifty years earlier, in Jever, Germany, an apothecary
named Johann Sprenger became famous throughout Europe
for a similar reason. Though he was denounced by the director
of the Institute for the Deaf and Dumb in Berlin, he was
besieged by the deaf themselves with requests for treatment.
His results were attested in court documents, and his methods
were adopted by contemporary physicians. He himself was
reported to have fully or partially restored hearing to no less
than forty deaf and hard of hearing individuals, including
some deaf from birth. His methods, like Duchenne’s, were
disarmingly simple and gentle. He made the current weaker or
stronger according to the sensitivity of his patient, and each
treatment consisted of brief pulses of electricity spaced one
second apart for a total of four minutes per ear. The electrode
was placed on the tragus (the flap of cartilage in front of the
ear) for one minute, inside the ear canal for two minutes, and
on the mastoid process behind the ear for one minute.
And fifty years before Sprenger, Swedish physician Johann
Lindhult, writing from Stockholm, reported the full or partial
restoration of hearing, during a two-month period, to a 57year-old man who had been deaf for thirty-two years; a youth
of twenty-two, whose hearing loss was recent; a seven-yearold girl, born deaf; a youth of twenty-nine, hard of hearing
since age eleven; and a man with hearing loss and tinnitus of
the left ear. “All patients,” wrote Lindhult, “were treated with
gentle electricity, either the simple current or the electric
Lindhult, in 1752, was using a friction machine. Half a
century later, Sprenger used galvanic currents from an electric
pile, forerunner of today’s batteries. Half a century after that,
Duchenne used alternating current from an induction coil.
British surgeon Michael La Beaume, similarly successful, used
a friction machine in the 1810s and galvanic currents later on.

What they all had in common was their insistence on keeping
their treatments brief, simple, and painless.
Seeing and Tasting Electricity
Aside from attempting to cure deafness, blindness, and other
diseases, early electricians were intensely interested in
whether electricity could be directly perceived by the five
senses—another question about which modern engineers have
no interest, and modern doctors have no knowledge, but whose
answer is relevant to every modern person who suffers from
electrical sensitivity.
When he was still in his early twenties, the future explorer
Alexander von Humboldt lent his own body to the elucidation
of this mystery. It would be several years before he left Europe
on the long voyage that was to propel him far up the Orinoco
River and to the top of Mount Chimborazo, collecting plants
as he went, making systematic observations of the stars and
the earth and the cultures of Amazonian peoples. Half a
century would pass before he would begin work on his fivevolume Kosmos, an attempt to unify all existing scientific
knowledge. But as a young man supervising mining operations
in the Bayreuth district of Bavaria, the central question of his
day occupied his spare time.
Is electricity really the life force, people were asking? This
question, gnawing gently at the soul of Europe since the days
of Isaac Newton, had suddenly become insistent, forcing itself
out of the lofty realms of philosophy and into dinnertime
discussions around the tables of ordinary people whose
children would have to live with the chosen answer. The
electric battery, which produced a current from the contact of
dissimilar metals, had just been invented in Italy. Its
implications were huge: friction machines—bulky, expensive,
unreliable, subject to atmospheric conditions—might no
longer be necessary. Telegraph systems, already designed by a
few visionaries, might now be practical. And questions about

the nature of the electric fluid might come closer to being
In the early 1790s, Humboldt threw himself into this
research with enthusiasm. He wished, among other things, to
determine whether he could perceive this new form of
electricity with his own eyes, ears, nose, and taste buds. Others
were doing similar experiments—Alessandro Volta in Italy,
George Hunter and Richard Fowler in England, Christoph
Pfaff in Germany, Peter Abilgaard in Denmark—but none
more thoroughly or diligently than Humboldt.
Consider that today we are accustomed to handling ninevolt batteries with our hands without a thought. Consider that
millions of us are walking around with silver and zinc, as well
as gold, copper, and other metals in the fillings in our mouths.
Then consider the following experiment of Humboldt’s, using
a single piece of zinc, and one of silver, that produced an
electric tension of about a volt:
“A large hunting dog, naturally lazy, very patiently let a
piece of zinc be applied against his palate, and remained
perfectly tranquil while another piece of zinc was placed in
contact with the first piece and with his tongue. But scarcely
one touched his tongue with the silver, than he showed his
aversion in a humorous manner: he contracted his upper lip
convulsively, and licked himself for a very long time; it
sufficed afterwards to show him the piece of zinc to remind
him of the impression he had experienced and to make him
The ease with which electricity can be perceived, and the
variety of the sensations, would be a revelation to most doctors
today. When Humboldt touched the top of his own tongue
with the piece of zinc, and its point with the piece of silver, the
taste was strong and bitter. When he moved the piece of silver
underneath, his tongue burned. Moving the zinc further back
and the silver forward made his tongue feel cold. And when
the zinc was moved even further back he became nauseated

and sometimes vomited—which never happened if the two
metals were the same. The sensations always occurred as soon
as the zinc and silver pieces were placed in metallic contact
with each other.3
A sensation of sight was just as easily elicited, by four
different methods, using the same one-volt battery: by
applying the silver “armature” on one moistened eyelid and
the zinc on the other; or one in a nostril and the other on an
eye; or one on the tongue and one on an eye; or even one on
the tongue and one against the upper gums. In each case, at the
moment the two metals touched each other, Humboldt saw a
flash of light. If he repeated the experiment too many times,
his eyes became inflamed.
In Italy, Volta, the inventor of the electric battery,
succeeded in eliciting a sensation of sound, not with one pair
of metals, but with thirty, attached to electrodes in each ear.
With the metals he originally used in his “pile,” using water as
an electrolyte, this may have been about a twenty-volt battery.
Volta heard only a crackling sound which could have been a
mechanical effect on the bones of his middle ears, and he did
not repeat the experiment, fearing that the shock to his brain
might be dangerous.4 It remained for German physician Rudolf
Brenner, seventy years later, using more refined equipment
and smaller currents, to demonstrate actual effects on the
auditory nerve, as we will see in chapter 15.
Speeding up the Heart and Slowing it Down
Back in Germany, Humboldt, armed with the same single
pieces of zinc and silver, turned his attention next to the heart.
Together with his older brother Wilhelm, and supervised by
well-known physiologists, Humboldt removed the heart of a
fox and prepared one of its nerve fibers so that the armatures
could be applied to it without touching the heart itself. “At
each contact with the metals the pulsations of the heart were
clearly changed; their speed, but especially their force and
their elevation were augmented,” he recorded.

The brothers next experimented on frogs, lizards, and
toads. If the dissected heart beat 21 times in a minute, after
being galvanized it beat 38 to 42 times in a minute. If the heart
had stopped beating for five minutes, it restarted immediately
upon contact with the two metals.
Together with a friend in Leipzig, Humboldt stimulated the
heart of a carp that had almost stopped beating, pulsing only
once every four minutes. After massaging the heart proved to
have no effect, galvanization restored the rate to 35 beats per
minute. The two friends kept the heart beating for almost a
quarter of an hour by repeated stimulation with a single pair of
dissimilar metals.
On another occasion, Humboldt even managed to revive a
dying linnet that was lying feet up, eyes closed on its back,
unresponsive to the prick of a pin. “I hastened to place a small
plate of zinc in its beak and a small piece of silver in its
rectum,” he wrote, “and I immediately established a
communication between the two metals with an iron rod. What
was my astonishment, when at the moment of contact the bird
opened its eyes, raised itself on its feet and beat its wings. It
breathed again for six or eight minutes and then calmly died.”5
Nobody proved that a one-volt battery could restart a
human heart, but scores of observers before Humboldt had
reported that electricity increased the human pulse rate—
knowledge that is not possessed by doctors today. German
physicians Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein6 and Carl Abraham
Gerhard,7 German physicist Celestin Steiglehner,8 Swiss
physicist Jean Jallabert,9 French physicians François Boissier
de Sauvages de la Croix,10 Pierre Mauduyt de la Varenne,11
and Jean-Baptiste Bonnefoy,12 French physicist Joseph Sigaud
de la Fond,13 and Italian physicians Eusebio Sguario14 and
Giovan Giuseppi Veratti15 were just a few of the observers
who reported that the electric bath increased the pulse rate by
anywhere from five to thirty beats per minute, when positive
electricity was used. Negative electricity had the opposite
effect. In 1785, Dutch pharmacist Willem van Barneveld

conducted 169 trials on 43 of his patients—men, women, and
children aged nine to sixty—finding an average five percent
increase in the pulse rate when the person was bathed with
positive electricity, and a three percent decrease in the pulse
rate when the person was bathed with negative electricity.16
When positive sparks were drawn the pulse increased by
twenty percent.
But these were only averages: no two individuals reacted
the same to electricity. One person’s pulse always increased
from sixty to ninety beats per minute; another’s always
doubled; another’s pulse became much slower; another reacted
not at all. Some of van Barneveld’s subjects reacted in a
manner opposite to the majority: a negative charge always
accelerated their pulse, while a positive charge slowed it
Observations of these kinds came quickly and abundantly, so
that by the end of the eighteenth century a basic body of
knowledge had been built up about the effects of the electric
fluid—usually the positive variety—on the human body. It
increased both the pulse rate, as we have seen, and the strength
of the pulse. It augmented all of the secretions of the body.
Electricity caused salivation, and made tears to flow, and
sweat to run. It caused the secretion of ear wax, and nasal
mucus. It made gastric juice flow, stimulating the appetite. It
made milk to be let down, and menstrual blood to issue. It
made people urinate copiously and move their bowels.
Most of these actions were useful in electrotherapy, and
would continue to be so until the early twentieth century.
Other effects were purely unwanted. Electrification almost
always caused dizziness, and sometimes a sort of mental
confusion, or “istupidimento,” as the Italians called it.17 It
commonly produced headaches, nausea, weakness, fatigue,
and heart palpitations. Sometimes it caused shortness of
breath, coughing, or asthma-like wheezing. It often caused

muscle and joint pains, and sometimes mental depression.
Although electricity usually caused the bowels to move, often
with diarrhea, repeated electrification could result in
Electricity caused both drowsiness and insomnia.
Humboldt, in experiments on himself, found that electricity
increased blood flow from wounds, and caused serum to flow
copiously out of blisters.18 Gerhard divided one pound of
freshly drawn blood into two equal parts, placed them next to
each other, and electrified one of them. The electrified blood
took longer to clot.19 Antoine Thillaye-Platel, pharmacist at the
Hôtel-Dieu, the famous hospital in Paris, agreeing, said that
electricity is contraindicated in cases of hemorrhage.20
Consistent with this are numerous reports of nosebleeds from
electrification. Winkler and his wife, as already mentioned, got
nosebleeds from the shock of a Leyden jar. In the 1790s,
Scottish physician and anatomist Alexander Monro, who is
remembered for discovering the function of the lymphatic
system, got nosebleeds from just a one-volt battery, whenever
he tried to elicit the sensation of light in his eyes. “Dr. Monro
was so excitable by galvanism that he bled from the nose
when, having the zinc very gently inserted in his nasal fossae,
he put it in contact with an armature applied to his tongue. The
hemorrhage always took place at the moment when the lights
appeared.” This was reported by Humboldt.21 In the early
1800s, Conrad Quensel, in Stockholm, reported that galvanism
“frequently” caused nosebleeds.22

Line engraving from Abbé Nollet, Recherches sur les Causes Particulières des
Phénomènes Électriques, Paris: Frères Guérin, 1753

Abbé Nollet proved that at least one of these effects—
perspiration—occurred merely from being in an electric field.
Actual contact with the friction machine wasn’t even
necessary. He had electrified cats, pigeons, several kinds of
songbirds, and finally human beings. In carefully controlled
repeatable experiments, accompanied by modern-looking data
tables, he had demonstrated measurable weight loss in all of
his electrified subjects, due to an increase in evaporation from
their skin. He had even electrified five hundred houseflies in a
gauze-covered jar for four hours and found that they too had
lost extra weight—4 grains more than their non-electrified
counterparts in the same amount of time.

Then Nollet had the idea to place his subjects on the floor
underneath the electrified metal cage instead of in it, and they
still lost as much, and even a bit more weight than when they
were electrified themselves. Nollet had also observed an
acceleration in the growth of seedlings sprouted in electrified
pots; this too occurred when the pots were only placed on the
floor beneath. “Finally,” wrote Nollet, “I made a person sit for
five hours on a table near the electrified metal cage.” The
young woman lost 4½ drams more weight than when she had
actually been electrified herself.23
Nollet was thus the first person, back in 1753, to report
significant biological effects from exposure to a DC electric
field—the kind of field that according to mainstream science
today has no effect whatsoever. His experiment was later
replicated, using a bird, by Steiglehner, professor of physics at
the University of Ingolstadt, Bavaria, with similar results.24
Table 1 lists the effects on humans, reported by most early
electricians, of an electric charge or small currents of DC
electricity. Electrically sensitive people today will recognize
most if not all of them.
Table 1 - Effects of Electricity as Reported in the
Eighteenth Century
Therapeutic and neutral

Non-therapeutic effects

Change in pulse rate


Sensations of taste, light,


and sound


Increase of body temperature


Pain relief


Restoration of muscle tone

Mental confusion

Stimulation of appetite


Mental exhilaration








Secretion of ear wax

Numbness and tingling

Secretion of mucus

Muscle and joint pains

Menstruation, uterine

Muscle spasms and cramps




Heart palpitations


Chest pain




Nosebleeds, hemorrhage
Respiratory infections
Shortness of breath

Wheezing and asthma attacks
Eye pain, weakness, and
Ringing in the ears
Metallic taste

3. Electrical Sensitivity
“I HAVE ALMOST ENTIRELY given up the electrical experiments.”
The author of these words, in referring to his own inability to tolerate
electricity, wrote them not in the modern era of alternating currents and
radio waves, but in the mid-eighteenth century when all there was was
static electricity. French botanist Thomas-François Dalibard confided
his reasons to Benjamin Franklin in a letter dated February 1762.
“First, the different electrical shocks have so strongly attacked my
nervous system that I am left with a convulsive tremor in my arm so
that I can scarcely bring a glass to my mouth; and if I now were to
touch one electrical spark I would be unable to sign my name for 24
hours. Another thing that I notice is that it is almost impossible for me
to seal a letter because the electricity of the Spanish wax,
communicating itself to my arm, increases my tremor.”
Dalibard was not the only one. Benjamin Wilson’s 1752 book, A
Treatise on Electricity, helped promote the popularity of electricity in
England, but he himself did not fare so well by it. “Upon repeating
those shocks often for several weeks together,” he wrote, “I at last was
weakened so much that a very small quantity of electric matter in the
vial would shock me to a great degree, and cause an uncommon pain.
So that I was obliged to desist from trying any more.” Even rubbing a
glass globe with his hand—the basic electrical machine of his day—
gave him “a very violent headache.”1
The man who authored the first book in German devoted solely to
electricity, Neu-Entdeckte Phænomena von Bewunderns-würdigen
Würckungen der Natur (“Newly Discovered Phenomena of the
Wonderful Workings of Nature,” 1744), became gradually paralyzed
on one side of his body. Called the first electrical martyr, Johann
Doppelmayer, professor of mathematics at Nuremberg, stubbornly
persisted in his researches and died of a stroke in 1750 after one of his
electrical experiments.2
These were just three of the earliest casualties—three scientists
who helped birth an electrical revolution in which they themselves
could not participate.
Even Franklin developed a chronic neurological illness that began
during the period of his electrical researches and that recurred

periodically for the rest of his life. Although he also suffered from
gout, this other problem worried him more. Writing on March 15,
1753, of a pain in his head, he said, “I wish it were in my foot, I think I
could bear it better.” One recurrence lasted for the better part of five
months while he was in London in 1757. He wrote to his doctor about
“a giddiness and a swimming in my head,” “a humming noise,” and
“little faint twinkling lights” that disturbed his vision. The phrase
“violent cold,” appearing often in his correspondence, was usually
accompanied by mention of that same pain, dizziness, and problems
with his eyesight.3 Franklin, unlike his friend Dalibard, never
recognized a connection to electricity.
Jean Morin, professor of physics at the Collège Royale de Chartres,
and author, in 1748, of Nouvelle Dissertation sur l’Électricité (“New
Dissertation on Electricity”), thought that it was never healthy to
expose oneself to electricity in any form, and to illustrate his point he
described an experiment conducted not with a friction machine but
with his pet cat. “I stretched out a large cat on the cover of my bed,” he
recounted. “I rubbed it, and in the darkness I saw sparks fly.” He
continued this for more than half an hour. “A thousand tiny fires flew
here and there, and continuing the friction, the sparks grew until they
seemed like spheres or balls of fire the size of a hazelnut… I brought
my eyes near one ball, and I immediately felt a lively and painful
stinging in my eyes; there was no shock in the rest of my body; but the
pain was followed by a faintness that made me fall to the side, my
strength failed me, and I battled, so to speak, against passing out, I
fought against my own weakness from which I did not recover for
several minutes.”4
Such reactions were by no means confined to scientists. What is
known to few doctors today was known universally to all eighteenthcentury electricians, and to the nineteenth-century electrotherapists
who followed them: electricity had side effects and some individuals
were enormously and unaccountably more sensitive to it than others.
“There are persons,” wrote Pierre Bertholon, a physicist from
Languedoc, in 1780, “on whom artificial electricity made the greatest
impression; a small shock, a simple spark, even the electric bath, feeble
as it is, produced profound and lasting effects. I found others in whom
strong electrical operations seemed not to cause any sensation at all…
Between these two extremes are many nuances that correspond to the
diverse individuals of the human species.”5

Sigaud de la Fond’s numerous experiments with the human chain
never produced the same results twice. “There are people for whom
electricity can be unfortunate and very harmful,” he declared. “This
impression being relative to the disposition of the organs of those who
experience it and of the sensitivity or irritability of their nerves, there
are probably not two persons in a chain composed of many, who
experience strictly the same degree of shock.”6
Mauduyt, a physician, proposed in 1776 that “the face of the
constitution depends in great part on the communication between the
brain, the spinal cord and the different parts by means of the nerves.
Those in whom this communication is less free, or who experience the
nervous illness, are then more affected than others.”7
Few other scientists made any attempt to explain the differences.
They simply reported them as fact—a fact as ordinary as that some
people are fat and some thin, some tall and some short—but a fact that
one had to take into account if one were going to offer electricity as a
treatment, or otherwise expose people to it.
Even Abbé Nollet, popularizer of the human chain and electricity’s
leading missionary, reported this variability in the human condition
from the very beginning of his campaign. “Pregnant women especially,
and delicate persons,” he wrote in 1746, “should not be exposed to it.”
And later: “Not all persons are equally appropriate to the experiments
of electricity, be it for exciting that virtue, be it for receiving it, be it
finally for feeling its effects.”8
British physician William Stukeley, in 1749, was already so
familiar with the side effects of electricity that he observed, after an
earthquake at London on March 8 of that year, that some felt “pains in
their joints, rheumatism, sickness, headach, pain in their back, hysteric
and nervous disorders… exactly as upon electrification; and to some it
has proved fatal.”9 He concluded that electrical phenomena must play
an important role in earthquakes.
And Humboldt was so amazed by the extraordinary human
variability that he wrote, in 1797: “It is observed that susceptibility to
electrical irritation, and electrical conductivity, differ as much from
one individual to another, as the phenomena of living matter differ
from those of dead material.”10
The term “electrical sensitivity,” in use again today, reveals a truth
but conceals a reality. The truth is that not everyone feels or conducts

electricity to the same degree. In fact if most people were aware of
how vast the spectrum of sensitivity really is, they would have reason
to be as astonished as Humboldt was, and as I still am. But the hidden
reality is that however great the apparent differences between us,
electricity is still part and parcel of our selves, as necessary to life as
air and water. It is as absurd to imagine that electricity doesn’t affect
someone because he or she is not aware of it, as to pretend that blood
doesn’t circulate in our veins when we are not thirsty.
Today, people who are electrically sensitive complain about power
lines, computers, and cell phones. The amount of electrical energy
being deposited into our bodies incidentally from all this technology is
far greater than the amount that was deposited deliberately by the
machines available to electricians during the eighteenth and early
nineteenth centuries. The average cell phone, for example, deposits
about 0.1 joule of energy into your brain every second. For a one-hour
phone call, that’s 360 joules. Compare that to a maximum of only 0.1
joule from the complete discharge of a one-pint Leyden jar. Even the
30-element electric pile which Volta attached to his ear canals could
not have delivered more than 150 joules in an hour, even if all the
energy were absorbed by his body.
Consider also that a static charge of thousands of volts accumulates
on the surface of computers screens—both old desktop computers and
new wireless laptops—whenever they are in use, and that part of this
charge is deposited on the surface of your body when you sit in front of
one. This is probably less charge than was provided by the electric
bath, but no one was subjected to the electric bath for forty hours a
Electrotherapy is indeed an anachronism. In the twenty-first
century we are all engaged in it whether we like it or not. Even if
occasional use was once beneficial to some, perpetual bombardment is
not likely to be so. And modern researchers trying to determine the
biological effects of electricity are a bit like fish trying to determine
the impact of water. Their eighteenth century predecessors, before the
world was inundated, were in a much better position to record its
The second phenomenon pointed out by Humboldt has equally
profound implications for both modern technology and modern
medicine: not only were some people more sensitive to its effects than
others, but individuals differed extremely in their ability to conduct

electricity and in their tendency to accumulate a charge on the surface
of their body. Some people could not help gathering a charge wherever
they went, simply by moving and breathing. They were walking spark
generators, like the Swiss woman whom the Scottish writer Patrick
Brydone heard about in his travels. Her sparks and shocks, he wrote,
were “strongest in a clear day, or during the passage of thunder-clouds,
when the air is known to be replete with that fluid.”11 Something was
physiologically different about such individuals.
And, conversely, human non-conductors were found, people who
conducted electricity so poorly, even when their hands were well
moistened, that their presence in a human chain interrupted the flow of
current. Humboldt performed many experiments of this type with socalled “prepared frogs.” When the person at one end of a chain of eight
people grasped a wire connected to the sciatic nerve of a frog while the
person at the other end grasped a wire connected to its thigh muscle,
the completing of the circuit made the muscle convulse. But not if
there was a human non-conductor anywhere in the chain. Humboldt
himself interrupted the chain one day when he was running a fever and
was temporarily a non-conductor. He also could not elicit the flash of
light in his eyes with the current on that day.12
In the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society for 1786
is a report along the same lines by Henry Flagg about experiments that
took place at Rio Essequibo (now Guyana), in which a many-personed
chain grasped the two ends of an electric eel. “If someone was present
who constitutionally was not apt to receive the impression of the
electric fluid,” wrote Flagg, “that person did not receive the shock at
the moment of contact with the fish.” Flagg mentioned one such
woman who, like Humboldt, had a mild fever at the time of the
This led some eighteenth century scientists to postulate that both
electrical sensitivity and electrical conductivity were indicators of
one’s overall state of health. Bertholon observed that a Leyden bottle
drew feebler sparks more slowly from a patient who was running a
fever than an identical bottle did from a healthy person. During
episodes of the chills, the opposite was true: the patient then seemed to
be a super-conductor and the sparks drawn from him or her were
stronger than normal.
According to Benjamin Martin, “a person who has the small-pox
cannot be electrified by any means whatever.”13

But despite the above observations, neither electrical sensitivity nor
electrical conductivity were reliable indicators of either good health or
bad. Most often they seemed to be random attributes. Musschenbroek,
for example, in his Cours de Physique, mentioned three individuals
whom he was never, at any time, able to electrify at all. One was a
vigorous, healthy 50-year-old man; the second a healthy, pretty 40year-old mother of two; and the third a 23-year-old paralyzed man.14
Age and sex seemed to be factors. Bertholon thought that electricity
had a greater effect on mature young men than on infants or the
elderly.15 French surgeon Antoine Louis agreed. “A man of twenty-five
years,” he wrote, “is electrified more easily than a child or an old
person.”16 According to Sguario, “women generally are electrized more
easily, and in a better manner, than men, but in one or the other sex a
fiery and sulfurous temperament better than others, and youths better
than old people.”17 According to Morin, “adults and persons with a
more robust temperament, more hot-blooded, more fiery, are also more
susceptible to the movement of this substance.”18 These early
observations that vigorous young adults are in some way more
susceptible to electricity than others may seem surprising. But we will
see later the importance of this observation to the public health
problems of the modern era, including especially the problem of
To illustrate in some detail the typical reactions of electrically
sensitive people, I have chosen Benjamin Wilson’s report on the
experiences of his servant, who volunteered to be electrified in 1748
when he was twenty-five years of age. Wilson, being electrically
sensitive himself, was naturally more attentive to these effects than
some of his colleagues. Present-day electrically sensitive people will
recognize most of the effects, including the after-effects that lasted for
“After the first and second experiments,” wrote Wilson, “he
complained of his spirits being depressed, and of being a little sick.
Upon making the fourth experiment, he became very warm, and the
veins of his hands and face swelled to a great degree. The pulse beat
more than ordinary quick, and he complained of a violent oppression at
his heart (as he called it) which continued along with the other
symptoms near four hours. Upon uncovering his breast, it appeared to
be much inflamed. He said that his head ached violently, and that he
felt a pricking pain in his eyes and at his heart; and a pain in all his
joints. When the veins began to swell, he complained of a sensation

which he compared to that arising from strangling, or a stock tying too
tight about the neck. Six hours after the making of the experiments
most of these complaints left him. The pain in his joints continued till
the next day, at which time he complained of weakness, and was very
apprehensive of catching cold. On the third day he was quite
“The shocks he received were trifling,” Wilson added, “compared
with those which are commonly received by most persons when they
join hands to compleat the circuit for amusement.”19
Morin, who stopped subjecting himself to electricity before 1748,
also highlighted its ill effects in some detail. “Persons who are
electrified on resin cakes, or on a wool cushion, often become like
asthmatics,” he observed. He reported the case of a young man of thirty
who, after being electrified, suffered from a fever for thirty-six hours
and a headache for eight days. He denounced medical electricity,
concluding from his own experiments on people with rheumatism and
gout that “all left suffering much more than before.” “Electricity brings
with it symptoms to which it is not prudent to expose oneself,” he said,
“because it is not always easy to repair the damage.” He especially
disapproved of the medical use of the Leyden jar, telling the story of a
man with eczema on his hand who, receiving a shock from a small jar
containing only two ounces of water, was rewarded with a pain in his
hand that endured more than a month. “He was not so eager after that,”
said Morin, “to be the whipping boy for the electrical phenomena.”20
Whether electricity did more good than harm was not a trivial issue
for people who lived at that time.
Morin, who was electrically sensitive, and Nollet, who was not,
came to loggerheads over the future of our world, there at the dawn of
the electrical era. Their debate played out very publicly in the books
and magazines of their time. Electricity was, first and foremost, known
to be a property of living things and to be necessary for life. Morin
thought of electricity as a kind of atmosphere, an exhalation that
surrounded material bodies, including living bodies, and
communicated itself to others by proximity. He was frightened by
Nollet’s notion that electricity might instead be a substance that flowed
in a direction from one place to another, that could not flow out unless
more of it flowed in from somewhere else, a substance that humanity
had now captured and could send anywhere in the world at will. The

debate began in 1748, just two years after the invention of the Leyden
“It would be easy,” prophesied Nollet with amazing accuracy, “to
make a great number of bodies feel the effects of electricity at the same
time, without moving them, without inconveniencing them, even if
they are at very considerable distances; because we know that this
virtue is transmitted with enormous ease to a distance by chains or by
other contiguous bodies; some metal pipes, some iron wires stretched
far away… a thousand other means even easier, that ordinary industry
could invent, would not fail to put these effects within reach of the
whole world, and to extend the use of it as far as one would wish.”21
Morin was shocked. What would become of the bystanders, he
immediately thought? “The living bodies, the spectators, would quickly
lose that spirit of life, that principle of light and of fire that animates
them… To put the whole universe, or at least a sphere of immense size
in play, in action, in movement for a simple crackling of a little
electrical spark, or for the formation of a luminous halo five to six
inches long at the end of an iron bar, that would be truly to create a
great commotion for no good reason. To make the electrical material
penetrate in the interior of the densest metals, and then to make it
radiate out with no obvious cause; that is perhaps to speak of good
things; but the whole world will not agree.”22
Nollet responded with sarcasm: “Truly, I don’t know if the whole
universe must feel thus the experiments that I make in a small corner of
the world; how will this flowing material that I cause to come toward
my globe from nearby, how will its flow be felt in China, for example?
But that would be of great consequence! Hey! What would become, as
Mr. Morin remarks so well, of the living bodies, of the spectators!”23
Like other prophets who have shouted warnings instead of praise
for new technologies, Morin was not the most popular scientist of his
time. I have even seen him condemned by one modern historian as a
“pompous critic,” a “gladiator” who “rose against” the electrical
visionary Nollet.24 But the differences between the two men were in
their theories and conclusions, not their facts. The side effects of
electricity were known to everyone, and continued to be so until the
dawn of the twentieth century.
George Beard and Alphonso Rockwell’s authoritative 1881
textbook on Medical and Surgical Electricity devoted ten pages to

these phenomena. The terms they used were “electro-susceptibility,”
referring to those who were easily injured by electricity, and “electrosensibility,” referring to those who sensed electricity to an
extraordinary degree. One hundred and thirty years after Morin’s first
warnings, these physicians said: “There are individuals whom
electricity always injures, the only difference in the effect on them
between a mild and a severe application being, that the former injures
less than the latter. There are patients upon whom all electrotherapeutic
skill and experience are wasted; their temperaments are not en rapport
with electricity. It matters not what may be the special disease or
symptoms of disease from which they suffer—paralysis, or neuralgia,
or neurasthenia, or hysteria, or affections of special organs—the
immediate and the permanent effects of galvanization or faradization,
general or localized, are evil and only evil.” The symptoms to watch
out for were the same as in the previous century: headache and
backache; irritability and insomnia; general malaise; excitation or
increase of pain; over-excitation of the pulse; chills, as though the
patient were catching a cold; soreness, stiffness, and dull aching;
profuse perspiration; numbness; muscle spasms; light or sound
sensitivity; metallic taste; and ringing in the ears.
Electro-susceptibility runs in families, said Beard and Rockwell,
and they made the same observations about gender and age that early
electricians had made: women, on average, were a little more
susceptible to electricity than men, and active adults between twenty
and fifty bore electricity more poorly than at other ages.
Like Humboldt, they were also astonished by the people who were
insensitive to the electrical energy. “It should be added,” they said,
“that some persons are indifferent to electricity—they can bear almost
any strength of either current very frequently and for long applications,
without experiencing any effect either good or evil. Electricity may be
poured over them in limitless measures; they may be saturated with it,
and they may come out from the applications not a whit better or
worse.” They were frustrated that there was no way to predict whether
a person was en rapport with electricity or not. “Some women,” they
observed, “even those who are exquisitely delicate, can bear enormous
doses of electricity, while some men who are very hardy can bear none
at all.”25
Obviously electricity is not, as so many modern doctors would
have it—those who recognize that it affects our health at all—an

ordinary kind of stressor, and it is a mistake to assume that one’s
vulnerability to it is an indicator of one’s state of health.
Beard and Rockwell did not give any estimates of the numbers of
people not en rapport with electricity, but in 1892, otologist Auguste
Morel reported that twelve percent of healthy subjects had a low
threshold for at least the auditory effects of electricity. In other words,
twelve percent of the population was, and presumably still is, able in
some way to hear unusually low levels of electric current.
Weather Sensitivity
Unlike electrical sensitivity per se, the study of human sensitivity to
the weather has a venerable history going back five thousand years in
Mesopotamia, and possibly as long in China and Egypt. In his treatise
on Airs, Waters and Places, written about 400 B.C., Hippocrates said
that the human condition is largely determined by the climate of the
place where one lives, and its variations. This is a discipline that,
however much ignored and underfunded, is mainstream. And yet the
name of this science, “biometeorology,” hides an open secret: some
thirty percent of any population, no matter their ethnic origin, are
weather sensitive and therefore, according to some textbooks in that
field, electrically sensitive.26
The International Society for Biometeorology was founded in 1956
by Dutch geophysicist Solco Tromp with headquarters in,
appropriately, Leyden, the city that launched the electrical age over
two centuries before. And for the next forty years—until cell phone
companies began to put pressure on researchers to repudiate an entire,
biomagnetism were the subjects of intensive research and were the
focus of one of the Society’s ten permanent Study Groups. In 1972, an
International Symposium was held in the Netherlands on the
“Biological Effects of Natural Electric, Magnetic and Electromagnetic
Fields.” In 1985, the Fall issue of the International Journal of
Biometeorology was devoted entirely to papers on the effects of air
ions and atmospheric electricity.
“We do great injustice to the electrosensitive patients,” wrote Felix
Gad Sulman, “when we treat them as psychiatric patients.” Sulman was
a medical doctor at Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem,
and chair of the Medical School’s Bioclimatology Unit. In 1980, he
published a 400-page monograph titled The Effects of Air Ionization,
Electric Fields, Atmospherics and Other Electric

Phenomena on Man and Animal. Sulman, together with fifteen
colleagues in other medical and technical fields, had studied 935
weather-sensitive patients over a period of fifteen years. One of their
most riveting findings was that eighty percent of these patients could
predict weather changes twelve to forty-eight hours before they
happened. “The ‘prophetic’ patients were all sensitive to the electrical
changes preceding the arrival of a weather change,” Sulman wrote.
“They reacted by serotonin release to ions and atmospherics which
naturally arrive with the speed of electricity—before the slow pace of
the weather winds.”28
Weather sensitivity had emerged from within the walls of centuries
of imprecise medical hearsay and was being exposed to the light of
rigorous laboratory analysis. But this put the field of biometeorology
on a collision course with an emerging technological dynamo. For if a
third of the earth’s population are that sensitive to the gentle flow of
ions and the subtle electromagnetic whims of the atmosphere, what
must the incessant rivers of ions from our computer screens, and the
turbulent storms of emissions from our cell phones, radio towers, and
power lines be doing to us all? Our society is refusing to make the
connection. In fact, at the 19th International Congress of
Biometeorology held September 2008 in Tokyo, Hans Richner,
professor of physics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, stood
up and actually told his colleagues that because cell phones are not
dangerous, and their electromagnetic fields are so much stronger than
those from the atmosphere, therefore decades of research were wrong
and biometeorologists should not study human interactions with
electric fields any more.29 In other words, since we are all using cell
phones, therefore we have to presume that they’re safe, and so all the
effects on people, plants and animals from mere atmospheric fields that
have been reported in hundreds of laboratories could not have
happened! It is no wonder that long-time biometeorological researcher
Michael Persinger, professor at Laurentian University in Ontario, says
that the scientific method has been abandoned.30
But in the eighteenth century, electricians did make the connection.
The reactions of their patients to the friction machine shed new light on
an ancient mystery. The problem was framed by Mauduyt. “Men and
animals,” he explained, “experience a sort of weakness and languor on
stormy days. This depression reaches its highest degree at the moment
preceding the storm, it diminishes shortly after the storm has burst, and
especially when a certain quantity of rain has fallen; it

dissipates and terminates with it. This fact is well known, important,
and has occupied physicians for a long time without their being able to
find a sufficient explanation.”31
The answer, said Bertholon, was now at hand: “Atmospheric
electricity and artificial electricity depend on one and the same fluid
that produces various effects relative to the animal economy. A person
who is insulated and electrized by the bath represents one who stands
on the earth when it is electrified to excess; both are filled to
overabundance with the electric fluid. It is accumulated around them in
the same fashion.”32 The electric circuit created by a machine was a
microcosm of the grand circuit created by the heavens and the earth.
Italian physicist Giambatista Beccaria described the global
electrical circuit in surprisingly modern terms (see chapter 9).
“Previous to rain,” he wrote, “a quantity of electrical matter escapes
out of the earth, in some place where there was a redundancy of it; and
ascends to the higher regions of the air… The clouds that bring rain
diffuse themselves from over those parts of the earth which abound
with the electric fire, to those parts which are exhausted of it; and, by
letting fall their rain, restore the equilibrium between them.”33
Eighteenth century scientists were not the first to discover this. The
Chinese model, formulated in the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal
Medicine, written in the fourth century B.C., is similar. In fact, if one
understands that “Qi” is electricity, and that “Yin” and “Yang” are
negative and positive, the language is almost identical: “The pure Yang
forms the heaven, and the turbid Yin forms the earth. The Qi of the
earth ascends and turns into clouds, while the Qi of the heaven
descends and turns into rain.”34
Famous weather sensitive—and therefore electrically sensitive—
individuals have included Lord Byron, Christopher Columbus, Dante,
Charles Darwin, Benjamin Franklin, Goethe, Victor Hugo, Leonardo
da Vinci, Martin Luther, Michelangelo, Mozart, Napoleon, Rousseau,
and Voltaire.35

4. The Road Not Taken
DURING THE 1790s, European science faced an identity
crisis. For centuries, philosophers had been speculating about
the nature of four mysterious substances that animated the
world. They were light, electricity, magnetism, and caloric
(heat). Most thought the four fluids were somehow related to
one another, but it was electricity that was most obviously
connected with life. Electricity alone breathed motion into
nerves and muscles, and pulsations into the heart. Electricity
boomed from the heavens, stirred winds, tossed clouds, pelted
the earth with rain. Life was movement, and electricity made
things move.
Electricity was “an electric and elastic spirit” by which “all
sensation is excited, and the members of animal bodies move
at the command of the will, namely, by the vibrations of this
spirit, mutually propagated along the solid filaments of the
nerves, from the outward organs of sense to the brain, and
from the brain into the muscles.”1 So spoke Isaac Newton in
1713, and for the next century few disagreed.
Electricity was:
“an element that is to us more intimate than
the very air that we breathe.”
Abbé Nollet, 17462
“the principle of animal functions, the
instrument of will and the vehicle of
French physicist Marcelin DucarlaBonifas, 17793
“that fire necessary to all bodies and which
gives them life… that is both attached to
known matter and yet apart from it.”

Voltaire, 17724
“one of the principles of vegetation; it’s
what fertilizes our fields, our vines, our
orchards, and what brings fecundity to the
depths of the waters.”
Jean-Paul Marat, M.D., 17825
“the Soul of the Universe” that “produces
and sustains Life thro-out all Nature, as well
in Animals as in Vegetables”
John Wesley, founder of the Methodist
Church, 1760.6
Then came Luigi Galvani’s stunning announcement that
simply touching a brass hook to an iron wire would cause a
frog’s leg to contract. A modest professor of obstetrics at the
Institute of Sciences of Bologna, Galvani thought this proved
something about physiology: each muscle fiber must be
something like an organic Leyden jar. The metallic circuit, he
reasoned, released the “animal electricity” that was
manufactured by the brain and stored in the muscles. The
function of the nerves was to discharge that stored electricity,
and the dissimilar metals, in direct contact with the muscle,
somehow mimicked the natural function of the animal’s own
But Galvani’s countryman, Alessandro Volta, held an
opposing, and at that time heretical opinion. The electric
current, he claimed, came not from the animal, but from the
dissimilar metals themselves. The convulsions, according to
Volta, were due entirely to the external stimulus. Furthermore,
he proclaimed, “animal electricity” did not even exist, and to
try to prove it he made his momentous demonstration that the
electric current could be produced by the contact of different
metals alone, without the intervention of the animal.
The combatants represented two different ways of looking
at the world. Galvani, trained as a physician, sought his

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