What to call execution by electricity in 1889

21.11, Wednesday 6 Oct 2021

Years ago I read every issue of Electrical Review magazine from the 1880s and 1890s.

Or at least leafed through. I was in the library anyway (you can prise my British Library reader pass from my cold dead hands) in the middle of a long unrelated project, and sometimes you just need to use the fact there are centuries of STUFF in the stacks you can just ask for, and spend a day like a pig in the proverbial.

The reason being:

I had recently read Carolyn Marvin’s excellent social history When Old Technologies Were New (1988; on Google Books), subtitle: Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century.

The 1880s saw the maturity of the electrical telegraph; the 1890s the roll-out of the electric light.

Meanwhile they were (a) understanding electricity as a phenomenon; and (b) inventing wildly to figure out what it could do. Very much like the internet today.

There’s a throwaway comment in the book about, well:

In response to an inquiry about the best word to express “execution by electricity,” the Electrical Review reported a variety of suggestions, including elektrophon, electricize, electrony, electrophony, thanelectrize, thanelectricize, thanelectrisis, electromort, electrotasy, fulmen, electricide, electropoenize, electrothenese, electrocution, electroed, electrostrike, “and finally joltacuss of voltacuss.”

Reference given in the footnotes:

“Which Shall It Be?”, Electrical Review, Aug. 17, 1889, p. 20

(Ultimately, of course, and this is a bit grim, execution is execution. The method is hardly what matters. But watching people figure out naming is always fascinating because you are watching people figure out how to describe and work with the world.)

So I wanted to read the original correspondence.

I didn’t manage to. It turns out there were two Electrical Review magazines. The exchange re executioners was in the US version of the title; I was reading the one from the UK.

YET: time well spent.

What struck me was the mix of content.

In each issue I could find

  • Industry news: a new telegraph cable laid, new lights turned on
  • Scientific progress: a new demonstration and some possible fundamental laws
  • Letters and “parish news” – a place for the community to have a conversation and to network around new ventures and ideas
  • Who has been hit by lightning this week? Summary news items, including (say) that lightning struck a tree on such-and-such a date near a child. The child was unharmed though a nearby metal bowl left scorched. That kind of thing.

The impression I came away with was that this was a community trying to figure out the world together.

At this time with electricity, it wasn’t clear what datapoints were salient. Was it important that the bowl was scorched in the lightning report? Unknown! So report it anyway! The scientific method: gather observations; taxonomise and hypothesise; predict and iterate. This era was step 1 going into step 2.

It’s obvious to us now that electricity does not thin the veil between this world and the afterlife – but in an era where a power used to replace crankshafts in factories was then used to transmit the written word between continents and then, bizarrely, provide artificial light, well, who is to say what would happen next.

So the boundary of electricity was as-yet undefined. Oversharing was a virtue.

I love this era of a new field. Not just the possibility of surprise round every corner, but the collective, heady nature of the endeavour. We’re making these discoveries together!

And we’re making new discoveries by wildly building new things and reporting back what happened. Theory and practice in a tight and lively knot. The best place to spend one’s days.

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