David Bodanis

Electric universe

Winner of the 2006 Aventis Prize

The use of electricity pervades modern society. However, each electric device is the result of a great deal of research. Sometimes this was done in well funded laboratories with the knowledge of the utility of the device being invented, but often it was up to individuals to push forward the development of an invention, and they could have many different reasons for doing this. In this book David Bodanis gives the stories of some of the most prominent of these discoveries.

The lives of inventors

The book starts with the development of the electric telegraph. To Joseph Henry, a teacher looking for a project to keep his students occupied, the idea of using electricity to transmit a message seemed an obvious one. But when he showed it to Samuel Morse, who was more experienced in the ways of business, Morse saw it as a moneymaking idea, to be patented and promoted. Thus we see how the different motivations of individuals have played their part in spreading of new technologies. In the case of Alexander Graham Bell it was his involvement in the deaf community, and in particular his love for Mabel Hubbard (who was somewhat overprotected by her parents), which motivated him to research into the nature of sound and so develop the telephone. Later chapters look at Hertz's early experiments with radio, Watson-Watt's work in the development of radar, and Alan Turing's involvement in the development of early computers.

Jostling Electrons

One thing that rather irritated me though was the 'simplified' description of what happens on the scale of electrons, which I felt often made things more confusing, especially since most readers will be familiar with the workings of the devices concerned anyway. It's one thing making a technical subject accessible to non-technical readers, but my feeling is that this is making the subject sound more technical than it is, just for the sake of it. For instance radar is described as forcing electrons in the target to jostle around and thus transmitting a signal that can be detected - essentially the enemy aircraft is being made into a radio transmitter, thus broadcasting its position. Maybe Watson-Watt used this argument to make the idea more appealing to the military, but it sounds like the same as reflection of the radar signal to me - I think Bodanis should have been clearer about this.

Individual stories

Bodanis is skilled at elucidating the details of an invention by giving biographical details about the inventor. Thus each chapter makes an interesting read. However, the chapters don't seem to hang together to give a coherent story of the use of electricity. For instance Part I is about electricity in wires (telephones and telegraphs), but the laying of the first transatlantic cable is in part II, which is supposedly about electromagnetic waves. Instead part I concludes with a chapter on Edison and how he invented the light bulb but failed to notice the possibility of the cathode ray tube. However, the book doesn't go into the spread of electric power, discussions of DC versus AC and the like. Part III, on the applications of electromagnetic waves, skips from Hertz's early experiments to the development of radar in the 1930's, missing out Marconi's experiments and the start of Radio and TV broadcasting. My feeling is that Part IV, on computers and transistors, could have been extended into the development of integrated circuits, concluding the book with a look at electrical and electronic technologies today. Instead there is a final part on the mind, of which the final chapter 'Electric Moods' seems to be more about chemistry than electricity.


Bodanis does well in presenting what might be thought of as a dull subject in an enthusiastic way and the book can be recommended as light reading for those wanting to find out about the development of electricity - he makes the topic entertaining for the non-technical reader. For those wishing to find out more there are over 50 pages of 'What happened next', notes and further reading suggestions. The good qualities of this book have been recognised in that it has been shortlisted for the 2006 Aventis prize. However my feeling is that it has too many flaws to be the ultimate winner..... but it seems that the judges had other ideas.

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