Electric Universe: The Shocking True Story of Electricity

by David Bodanis

Hardcover, 2005




New York : Crown Publishers, c2005.


"Bodanis weaves tales of romance, divine inspiration, and fraud through lucid accounts of scientific breakthroughs. The great discoverers come to life in all their brilliance and idiosyncrasy, including the visionary Michael Faraday, who struggled against the prejudices of the British class system, and Samuel Morse, a painter who, before inventing the telegraph, ran for mayor of New York City on a platform of persecuting Catholics. Here too is Alan Turing, whose dream of a marvelous thinking machine - what we know as the computer - was met with indifference, and who ended his life in despair after British authorities forced him to undergo experimental treatments to "cure" his homosexuality."--BOOK JACKET.

User reviews

LibraryThing member grintoul
David Bodanis' book wins convincing plaudits from Bill Bryson, The Observer, The Sunday Times and The Economist to name but a few - and for good reason. Electric Universe is a fascinating look at electricity in all its forms, effortlessly mixing biography, science, history and humour.

The book is divided into five sections, chronologically detailing the progress of human understanding from 1830 to the present. First, 'Wires' deals with the discovery of electricity, and the first tentative steps of inventions such as the telegraph. Bodanis takes a fascinating look at the way new forms of electric communication changes the world, making it a smaller, more interconnected place. 'Waves' then looks at the increasingly deeper understanding of the way in which electricity worked, covering topics such as electromagnetic fields. The way in which these waves were then put to use are studied in the 'Wave Machines' section, including fascinating biographies of key players in the invention of radar.

Moving away from the discovery and initial uses of electricity to the more contemporary age, the second-to-last section covers Turing's work on computers during the war and his vision for the future, the realisation of the power of silicon, the invention of the transistor and the path to the modern computer world. And finally, 'The Brain and Beyond' looks at the discovery of and science behind the way in which our bodies work, effortlessly and clearly explaining the way in which we are vast, wet computers, with electric charges controlling everything from our nerves to our memory.

Of all these sections, I found two in particular - 'Wave Machines' and 'The Brain and Beyond' particularly fascinating, though more from personal preference and interest rather than any literary reason. In addition to the invention of radar, the former covers a diverse range of people and experiences, discusses the science behind the technology, and touches on the morality (or otherwise) of the way in which technology was used during the Second World War. The latter, 'The Brain and Beyond', is incredibly thought-provoking, illustrating just how miraculous the human body and its inner workings are.

To find any serious flaw with Bodanis' book is difficult. Only two things sprang out at me, and are the sole reason for my dropping it a half-star rating to four-and-a-half out of five. The first is that chapter 6, which looks at Hertz's gradual increase in the understanding of electricity, has a slightly cobbled-together feel about it. Composed of excerpts from his diary, I can see Bodanis' point that his own words easily convey his progress in the field. However, page after page of quotes, cut and pasted with little linkage between excerpts, makes for rather bland and disjointed reading.

The second, more of a niggle than a flaw, is that Bodanis includes an excellent appendix detailing further information on points he makes throughout the book, referenced by page number. While it was interesting to reference back to each page and then read the extra information, some linkage the other way would have been appreciated. While I understand that the appendix was doubtless a solution to excessive footnotes, an indication in the main body of the text when further information was available would have allowed for a more flowing reference between the main body of the literature and the array of facts and references at the back.

As a complete package, however, the book is absolutely excellent. Well written, covering an enormous array of time, inventions, uses of electricity, people, human understanding and technologies, Bodanis has done an outstanding job, well deserving of the Aventis Prize for Science Books which it was awarded. It's few and far between that a book manages to balance simplicity with detail, coherence with complex science, man with machine, and fact with imagination. Absolutely worth a read, I'd recommend without hesitation Electric Universe to anyone who wants a great overview of the history of electricity.
… (more)
LibraryThing member nmele
I have mixed feelings about this book--the breezy tone struck me as condescending rather than friendly, and most of the stories Bodanis tells are familiar--Michael Faraday's struggles with class prejudice, the work of Edison, Galvani and Volta, etc. But Bodanis did teach me a few things and as I got used to his style I found it less distracting.

This is not, however, anything like a complete history of the discovery of electricity and its applications--Tesla, for example, is nowhere mentioned. And the story pretty much ends with the development of the transistor and the discovery that electric charges pass signals through our nervous systems.

I'm not sure I'd recommend this to anyone over 40...
… (more)
LibraryThing member FredB
This is series of descriptions of somewhat unrelated items related to electricity. It talks about such pioneers in the science of electricity as Joseph Henry, Michale Faraday, Thomas Edison, J. J. Thomson, etc. I found the part about the first transatlantic cable the most engaging. It's amazing how little they know about electricity before they went and put in a cable all the way across the ocean. I got a little bit tired of the language the author uses to describe electricity, current, voltage, power, etc. Being a physics professor, I found it too simplistic and "poetic".… (more)
LibraryThing member datrappert
Entertaining and occasionally enlightgening, particularly the rather touching part about Alexander Graham Bell's courtship of his deaf wife. I think I would have enjoyed it more, however, if Bodanis had spent a little more time on what we normally consider as electricity. Instead, he jams it all in, including the birth of computers, the wartime morals of the bombing of Hamburg, and how our brain and body work on electricity as well. As a result, nothing is quite as in-depth as I would have liked.… (more)
LibraryThing member Clif
This is a very readable history about the development of electricity, a modern convenience that most of us take for granted. I think the book will be appreciated by any reader who wants to know and understand the history behind the development of the modern utilities that we have become so dependent on.

Read in March, 2007… (more)
LibraryThing member Bulwor
Excellent information. Well written and nicely explained. My heart breaks every time I hear the story of Alan Turing.
LibraryThing member julie10reads
This entertaining look at how electricity works and affects our daily lives is highlighted by Bodanis's charming narrative voice and by clever, fresh analogies that make difficult science accessible. Bodanis examines electricity's theoretical development and how 19th- and 20th-century entrepreneurs harnessed it to transform everyday existence. Summary BPL

I listened the audio version of this book with much pleasure. The author manages to make science understandable--how novel!--and absorbing. I was particularly taken by the story of Alan Turing, inventor of the (idea, anyway) modern computer.

8 out of 10 Highly recommended to all who want to investigate science painlessly!
… (more)
LibraryThing member JohannaIvarsson
This book was a great reading during the summer. I study for a degree in electrical engineering and it was really an eye-opening experience to read the history of electricity. How much it has effected our way of life and how hard it can be to be recognised as an inventor.

It is very simply written and David Bodanis even managed to bring in tiny bits of humor into an area of science that, at least in Sweden, is not very appealing to many young people these days.… (more)


Local notes

inscribed by author


Page: 0.2774 seconds