Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Epilogue: An Invisible Technology-What Remains to Be Seen

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Epilogue: An Invisible Technology-What Remains to Be Seen

Article excerpt

This book began with the claim that the lightning rod, despite its apparent selfevidence and technical simplicity, has a history that has been widely neglected. The contributions in this volume aimed at making visible several facets of the lightning rod's historical complexity. Yet no complete image emerges. Several aspects have been omitted or merely touched upon. In this epilogue, we will suggest some of these aspects that, in our view, merit further investigation and highlight the rich potential of the lightning rod as an object of interdisciplinary research.

Alternative Protection Devices

Our focus on the lightning rod omitted almost completely "alternative" practices of protecting against lightning. In some of the essays, the ringing of church bells is mentioned, but only as something that was about to be abolished. Yet why not look at this well-established practice from a different perspective? When lightning became an accepted electrical phenomenon and other practices were criticized, attempts were made to develop a rational explanation for these protection procedures. "Thunder can be disrupted and diverted by the sounds of several bells or the firing of a cannon; thereby great agitation is excited in the air which disperses the parts of the thunder" claimed no lesser mind than Pieter van Musschenbroek, discoverer of the Leyden jar in the flagship publication of the Enlightenment itself, the Encyclopédie.1 Similarly, French natural philosopher Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier attempted to scientifically justify the ringing of church bells by theorizing that lightning was the result of an accumulation of inflammable gases that were meant to be dissipated through the sound of the bells.2

There were, of course, countless other practices of protection against lightning, some dating back to antiquity. To name but a few, in the Mediterranean people put laurel leaves or branches of olive trees on top of their houses, around their fields, or on their beds (Bertucci); the bell tower of St. Stephen in Vienna had been protected by antlers since the sixteenth century; and individuals protected themselves by wearing amulets made of oak wood.3

One might also wonder what means of protection were practiced in nonEuropean cultures. What kind of understanding did or do they have of phenomena such as lightning? To give an example from Southern Africa, "Among most of the Bantu tribes . . . the belief is general that lightning is produced by a magical thunderbird, Umpundulo, which dives from die clouds to earth and whose vivid plumage and beating wings give rise to the flash and to the thunder."4 In Japan people used specially made bamboo instruments that produced frightening sounds when waved to keep rice seedlings safe from lightning. This kind of magic is called "kandachioi," which means "escorting the heavenly power to another place." Personal protection was sought through the use of mosquito nets and from special antilightning pills, which Japanese noblemen carried in small boxes.5

All these practices deserve study in their own right. They point to different systems of meaning and consequentìy different ways of communicating with nature or God. So far this has been the domain of anthropologists. But as far as we can see, there are only a few scattered articles but no systematic investigation of these alternative practices, let alone comparative approaches.

Admittedly, this volume has been fairly Eurocentric. Except for Clark's essay on Spanish Mexico, we did not deal with questions of how die lightning rod was introduced in South America, Africa, or Asia. Yet this might be a very fruitful approach. Was it similar to or entirely different from Europe and North America? Which groups "pushed" the new technology in India, Egypt, and China, and what were their motivations? How were lightning rods adapted by these countries in terms of both their design and their cultural meaning? In this context, the "contest" between Western technology and indigenous knowledge should receive more attention. …

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