IEEE Technology and Society Magazine - June 2021 - 17

Book Review
Electric Light: An Architectural History -
Sandy Isenstadt (Cambridge, MA, USA:
MIT Press, 2018, 292 pp.)
Reviewed by A. David Wunsch
University of Massachusetts Lowell,
Lowell, MA 01854 USA
 One shOuld prObably not spend a lot of time
trying to parse the title of this appealing book: it is
neither a work focused on the built environment nor
a history of the electric light. Instead, one might consider
the author's words that his intention is to study
cases that " suggest an architectural history of spaces
that have been generated or extensively reconstituted
by electric light. " His thesis is " the electric light
changes the underlying nature of a space. "
Isenstadt is clearly wide-ranging in his interests:
one of the refreshing aspects of his book is his numerous
quotations taken from literature: Henry Adams,
Edgar Allan Poe, H.G. Wells, Sigmund Freud, Seamus
Heaney, and Rupert Brooke to name just a few.
The book opens with a short course on the history
of indoor lighting, beginning with such primitive
artifacts as candles, oil lamps, gas lamps, and,
dating from 1876, the first practical electric lamp,
which was not incandescent but employed a visually
intense and smelly electric arc. Man-made
lighting had been at last separated from the flame.
A major date in the history of incandescent electric
lighting in the United States was Thomas Edison's
launching of the Pearl Street electric power (DC)
station in New York City in 1882. This was the first
commercial source of electricity in the U.S. Prior to
that time there was some limited use of the recently
Digital Object Identifier 10.1109/MTS.2021.3077039
Date of current version: 3 June 2021.
June 2021
invented Edison incandescent bulb but the property
owners had to provide their own generator.
Rather than focus on the history of the bulb itself,
Isenstadt dwells on a device that accompanied
incandescent electrical lighting: the light switch.
Anyone who went to Sunday school will know the
third line from the book of Genesis: " And God said,
'Let there be light,' and there was light. " With the lighting
of the home and factory came the switch, and
the feeling enjoyed by the first users as they threw a
switch must have bordered on the uncanny. To discuss
this phenomenon Isenstadt brings in the master
of the uncanny, Sigmund Freud, who described his
grandson learning that he could throw objects away
from himself and then, by retrieving them, to make
them reappear-the child's first instance of mastering
his space. Isenstadt remarks that we replay this
phenomenon in illuminating a room and then sending
it back to darkness. While not fully receptive to
a Freudian interpretation of a light switch, I would
credit Isenstadt with novelty in his analysis. We do
learn the origin of the word " switch " which derives
from the English " switch " : a long stick to control a
horse and tell it to increase its speed. From this, the
term made its way to railways for track switching,
and from there it went to electric circuits.
The confluence of light and space was at times
a mixed blessing. Isenstadt quotes Robert Louis
Stevenson on electric street lighting: " A new sort of
urban star shines out nightly, horrible, unearthly,
0278-0097/21©2021 IEEE
17

IEEE Technology and Society Magazine - June 2021

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