The Invisible Rainbow: A History of Electricity and Life
By Arthur Firstenberg
Chelsea Green Publishing
At the heart of Arthur Firstenberg’s The Invisible Rainbow is a simple question: “What is the effect of electricity on life?” One would think, given electricity’s ubiquity, that the response to this pressing issue would not be buried in obscurity, but as Firstenberg says, “The effects of non-lethal electricity are something mainstream science no longer wants to know.”
Firstenberg shares his extensive knowledge on the history of electricity and electromagnetic radiation in a manner that is not only instructive but enjoyable. Historical photos and first-hand accounts bring to life a time in history long past and forgotten. Who would have guessed that everyone from ministers to mechanics had early static electricity machines with which to shock people? Or that parlor games involving static electric kisses would become the rage? The inventions made possible by electricity also allowed people to “annihilate space and time.” You could talk with someone two thousand miles away or travel one hundred miles in just a few hours instead of almost a week.
Some of those who discovered electricity expressed trepidation about the power and impact of this force. However, as with so many discoveries and technologies, most proponents touted electricity’s benefits while ignoring or minimizing the risks. Wherever electricity went, though, illness or injury seemed to follow. Individuals who worked in the new industries unleashed by harnessing electricity (such as telegraph operators and telephone switchboard operators) often suffered dramatic injuries and illnesses. Doctors of the day noted that they were witnessing new diseases spread along telegraph and railroad lines, and some attributed these issues directly to electricity.
Firstenberg points out that electricity, while incredibly dangerous, also came to be viewed as medically beneficial and even miraculous. One reason that electricity became a popular therapy was because—even if people didn’t and still don’t know why or how—it addressed a host of conditions. People were partially or fully cured from a wide array of afflictions by often minuscule doses of electricity—the deaf would hear, and the lame would walk. Especially compared to the alternative treatments of the day, one can recognize the appeal.
There was a great deal in this book that surprised, enlightened, amused or otherwise educated me. For example, I had never encountered the idea that acupuncture is actually a refined form of electrotherapy—using the natural charge of earth and atmosphere and body to treat disease. Equally thought-provoking (and a bit terrifying) is Firstenberg’s exploration of the flu and a number of other permanent fixtures of modern life as phenomena intimately tied to and driven by the age of electricity. Did you know that before modern times, flu pandemics closely tracked the sun’s activity cycle, and dozens of doctors and researchers had documented the relationship? Or that influenza’s spread pattern defies the common idea that it primarily passes from person to person? Let’s just say I had to pause and walk away a number of times during Chapter Seven alone to ponder the implications of all the research and data with which The Invisible Rainbow invites the reader to engage.
I’ll admit that the book left me with mixed feelings. Recent research continues to highlight substantial dangers tied to the devices and technologies that undergird modern work and life—dangers such as cell phones that emit far more radiation than manufacturers care to accurately report—and the rise of brain cancer and other neurological changes in users. Although there are steps we can take to minimize our exposure (such as hard-wiring our houses for Internet instead of using wireless technology or switching back to corded phones and technologies when possible), many of these “older approaches” are hard to find or not available where people work. Soon they may become completely unavailable. Progress marches on, even if it is at the price of our health. Smart meters, 5G wireless and so much more—the initial trickle of electromagnetic radiation is now a ceaseless invisible monsoon.
The Invisible Rainbow is massive—almost six hundred pages to work through—and its size and scope make it somewhat hard to review. Which of the many topics should a reviewer focus on? The connection between our biology and electricity (most poignantly seen in our nervous system)? The harmful synergy between chemical and electrical exposures? Or the deep debate and divide over the safety of AC (alternating current) versus DC (direct current)? The mainstream movie, The Current War, dramatizes this debate.
Firstenberg’s book is a thoughtful read in the same manner as books by Dr. Tom Cowan. You may not agree with or even fully understand all that Firstenberg covers, but he will make you think long and deeply about important matters related to health, history and other topics. Ultimately, this book reminds us that “electricity is intimately connected with biology.” As electrical and biological beings, we are now bathed daily in foreign frequencies of our own making. We ignore the connection between electricity and biology at our own peril. Two thumbs up.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2020