Taming the Electrical Fire: A Conference on the History and Cultural Meaning
of the Lightning Rod
This is the final call for papers for a conference on the history and
cultural meaning of the lightning rod to be held November 3-6, 2002 at the
Bakken Library and Museum in Minneapolis, Minnesota (USA). The conference is
timed to precede the History of Science Society conference in Milwaukee,
Wisconsin, November 7-10, 2002, for the convenience of scholars travelling
from outside the USA.
Although in general it is difficult to give the exact date of a scientific
discovery or the invention of a technical device, it is sometimes possible
to name an event that – at least in retrospect – is inseparably connected
with such an achievement. One such event is the demonstration of the
electrical nature of lightning that took place in Marly near Paris on May
10, 1752, an event which is linked both to the development of the lightning
rod as well as to Benjamin Franklin. This event provides the occasion to
propose a conference on the history of the lightning rod. Our intent is not
simply to commemorate the 250th anniversary of a major technological
achievement, but also to fill one of the desiderata in the history of
science and technology. From our point of view, this device, its development
and implications still await the comprehensive scholarly attention it
deserves. With this in mind we intend to approach the subject matter from a
wide variety of perspectives: namely history of science and technology,
cultural studies, history of mentality and literature.
What were the symbolic and metaphorical uses of the lightning rod, e.g., in
enlightened politics? Which role did the acceptance of this device play in
discourses on the ‘taming of nature’? The discussions on the prospective
value (and danger) of this artificial device as well as its moral
implications are paradigmatic for public discourses, particularly in the
enlightenment. The commodification of the lightning rod, related economic
aspects, its appearance in fire insurance policies as well as its use by the
military are also of relevance.
We are further interested in different protection mechanisms against
lightning, for example more traditional ones. We do not intend to solely
focus on the second half of the eighteenth century, but would like to follow
the developments in the 19th century and beyond. Of equal importance is a
comparative element, which we hope to achieve by contrasting the
introduction and uses of lightning rods in different countries and cultures.
In a second step it is planned to publish selected conference papers.
The recently renovated and expanded Bakken Library and Museum
(www.thebakken.org) offers an ideal site for the conference. Its extensive
historical collections and exhibits on "electricity in life" offer an
inspiring venue for an intimate and focused gathering. Scholars who wish to
conduct research in The Bakken's collections before or after the conference
may wish to apply for a Bakken Visiting Research Fellowship (see website).
We also hope to secure additional funds to help subsidize the attendance of
a few scholars with financial needs.
We ask scholars from all fields interested in the topic to mail an abstract
(300 words) of their intended talk to
The abstract should be mailed to us by February 1, 2002.
Peter Heering (University of Oldenburg)
Oliver Hochadel (University of Vienna)
David Rhees (Bakken Library and Museum)
Send comments and questions to H-Net
Webstaff. H-Net reproduces announcements that have been submitted to us as a
free service to the academic community. If you are interested in an announcement
listed here, please contact the organizers or patrons directly. Though we strive
to provide accurate information, H-Net cannot accept responsibility for the text of
announcements appearing in this service. (Administration)