Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Lightning Rods and the Commodification of Risk in Nineteenth Century America

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Lightning Rods and the Commodification of Risk in Nineteenth Century America

Article excerpt

IN THE LATE SUMMER OF 1853, Herman Melville spent a few months living just outside the village of Pittsfield in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. Chronically short of money, he was gathering inspiration for short stories that could be sold to popular magazines. The following spring, drawing on his experiences in Pittsfield, he wrote "The Lightning-Rod Man," which appeared in the August 1854 issue oíPutnam's Monthly Magazine.1

Told from the perspective of a nameless householder, Melville's brief narrative recounts the visit of a lightning rod salesman during a summer thunderstorm. Refusing his host's offer of a place near the fire, the visitor plants himself in the center of the room, holding tightly to "a polished copper rod, four feet long, lengthwise attached to a neat wooden staff, by the insertion into two balls of greenish glass, ringed with copper bands [insulators], . . .The metal rod," Melville informs the reader, "terminated at the top tripodwise, in three keen tines, brightly gilt."2 Jupiter Tonans, as the narrator calls him, then attempts to frighten his host into buying his wares. "I warn you, sir, quit the hearth. . . . Are you so horribly ignorant then as to not know, that by far the most dangerous part of a house during such a terrific tempest as this, is the fire-place?"' Both men then fall into an argument about the efficacy of rods and the relative danger of lightning. Finally, the narrator grows so frustrated by the salesman's evasive patter that he breaks the rod and kicks his visitor out into the storm, berating him with a speech about the hubris of testing God's will by employing technology.4

This short story has become fodder for two generations of twentieth century literary critics. Most of them agree that the salesman represents benighted, mean-spirited, intolerant, evangelical Protestantism and the narrator, the forces of rationality.5 In contrast, many nineteenth century readers would have recognized the literal basis of Melville's story. 6At the time of its publication, a growing number of lightning rod salesmen had begun to wander the villages and back roads of America pitching their wares to both the wary and the unsuspecting. Melville himself supposedly encountered such a character during his Pittsfield stay.7

Lightning rod salesmen were a relatively new phenomenon in 1854. Although lightning rods had been around for nearly a century, they had just begun to change from a homemade device erected by knowledgeable farmers, mechanics, blacksmiths, and others to a commodity made in a factory and sold and installed by salesmen or lightning rod companies (fig. 8.1). This transition co-incided with what American historians have called the "market revolution"- a period in which increasing numbers of Americans (including, significantly, small-town and rural Northerners) became more tied to a cash economy and the values of a market society.8

Why would such a technology become commodified? And how did both the technology itself and the social relations around it change as this happened? To answer these questions, it is important to understand something about the nature of the technology itself. Lightning rods (or more accurately, lightning protection systems of which the rod is the most visible and symbolic part) are a safety technology (like seat belts, fire alarms, and radon detectors) that falls into a category of devices primarily useful for mediating risk. As commodities, safety technologies can be quite difficult to sell. People are hesitant to invest their hard-earned money in a form of insurance they may never need. Unlike fire or life insurance (at least in their twentieth century forms), safety technologies can also fail or, if faulty or badly designed, can actually make an accident worse. Nineteenth century lightning rod systems seem to have been particularly prone to failure (or at least the failures attracted the attention of the newspapers). Melville's narrator, for example, brings up the fact that lightning had struck a local church steeple armed with a rod only the week before- a rod the lightning rod man had in fact installed. …

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