On an Electric Leash

By Dan Agbese (July 1985)

Electricity. Eleven letters. Three images. Power. Progress. Domination. Electricity. Nothing is quite like it. It is power, enormous power.

Without it, man would still be at the mercy of his hostile environment, unable to tame the weather, conquer the mountains, construct highways in the skies and build roads on the seas. And he would continue to lose, as his forebears did, the endless battle against disease and ignorance. Electricity is at the heart of man’s almost unimaginable progress in the sciences, arts, medicine and technology. It makes man the dominant power in the world.

We owe it all to Michael Faraday, a 19th century British physicist who discovered the principle of electromagnetic induction. Electricity was not invented. It was put there by nature. We may never know why. But it was good that Faraday stumbled on it and taught the world how to put this enormous power at his beck and call. Without it, nothing would be that was made; nothing will be that is being made and nothing will ever be made.

Electricity has changed the world. For better and for worse. With a push of the button, it banishes darkness and brings the combined warmth of the sun and the brilliance of the moon into the comfort of our homes.

Electricity is more. It is a workhorse. It drives the enormous and intricate wheels of industry and commerce. It is at the heart of every invention – big or small. It has replaced the ox in the field; the horse on the road; the bird in the air and the firewood in the home. It is the ultimate instrument of human progress. Never has man depended so completely on pieces of wire for his life, progress – and death. It is man’s best friend and his most implacable enemy; man’s servant and his master. It serves and it rules. It saves and it destroys. It is an instrument of service and peace; and it is an instrument of war and destruction.

With it, man plays God – creating life, prolonging life, defeating his environment in a way that makes him truly God’s paramount ruler on earth. Electricity has made the world one large global village. It has vanquished distance and shocked all natural obstacles into submission – the air allows electricity to make communication between nations and continents possible; the sea obeys electricity, thus making water transport possible. But with electricity, man also plays the devil. Electricity has made war a nightmare; for with it, man can at the push of a button cause the destruction of towns and villages many miles away; electricity has made the contest for supremacy among nations possible, extending the nightmare to air and sea. Electricity has improved man’s capacity to destroy himself and his world. The manipulation of electricity for destructive purposes puts the world in constant fear of itself.

There is a sad irony in all this. Man’s success is also the tiny acorn of his defeat. Electric wires are the vein and arteries of the world. Without them, the wheels of industry will not turn and man’s advancements in the sciences and the arts would come to naught. Invariably, therefore, man has unwittingly used electric wires to put himself on a leash. So completely does electricity dominate man that he has lost his capacity to control electricity, the greatest wonder in the world.

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