I began to envision a project on eighteenth-century electrical technology sometime in 1992. In search of the earliest motors for my 1994 book on electric automobiles, I came across a reference to Benjamin Franklin's “electrical jack, ” an electrostatic motor. I tracked down the original source and read it with rapt attention; I also did some desultory reading about eighteenth-century electricity. At the time, this was no more than a pleasant and brief diversion from electric automobiles. But one impression registered deeply: the eighteenth century was an electrical age, with fascinating technology that played many roles in diverse people's lives. Someday, I promised myself, I would tell the story of this technology. But after I finished the car book in 1993, another project—developing an artifact-based theory of human communication—consumed my attention for nearly five years.
At long last, in 1998 I plunged into eighteenth-century electricity. From the very beginning I planned to adopt an archaeological approach to this subject by exploring, and attempting to explain variations in, the entire gamut of electrical technology. I would not only look at early physics or medical electricity or lightning conductors but would also seek information on all major—and even some minor—electrical things that people created and used in the eighteenth century. On the basis of mostly secondary sources, I prepared one scholarly paper on competitions among electrostatic, electrochemical, and electromagnetic technologies. During the summer of 1999 I drafted the first outline of this book as well as several very rough chapters, but the book lacked a coherent framework that could easily accommodate the incredible variety of people, activities, and technologies that made up eighteenth-century electricity. One day, while waiting for my wife, Annette, in a shopping mall in Flagstaff, Arizona, it finally came to me.