Tag Archives: electricity

From Courting to Dating

Dating was invented in the 1920s.

Up through the beginning of the twentieth century, American courtship was carefully monitored. A girl would receive her gentleman caller on the front porch or in the family parlor, in the company of at least one adult chaperone. The couple would talk, read together, or play board games; on rare occasions they might be allowed to attend a church social or musical performance together, but always in view of nosy neighbors and family friends.

Under this system of courtship, women were in control. They selected the times and days for visits, did the inviting, and set the limits. All men could do was play along.

During the same period, even in the big cities, there was virtually no urban nightlife in America. After the sun went down, the night was lit only by the dim glow of gas lamps, and few respectable persons would dare to venture out after dark.

But by the first decade of the twentieth century, all that started to change.

The first challenge to the courtship system was America’s infatuation with the bicycle. These new contraptions made it easier for couples to slip away beyond the monitoring eyes of parents. Then came the telephone, which made it possible for young people to talk more freely, more often, and with more privacy.

Then came the automobile.

In the first years of the twentieth century, cars were considered unsafe and impractical. They didn’t work very well, and only millionaire hobbyists owned them. Drivers were limited to speeds of eight miles per hour, and some local ordinances required that each car be preceded by someone on foot, who was to warn pedestrians by waving a red flag.

But by the 1920s, cars were becoming commonplace; one-fifth of all Americans owned one of the new mass-produced automobiles. Suddenly, young people were never home anymore. Increasingly, they spent their evenings not in the family parlor, but in a car parked at Lover’s Lane.

In the same decade, for the first time, more Americans lived in cities than in the countryside. More and more young people were leaving the family farm every year, and flocking to the newly-electrified cities.

Many of those new urbanites were women. By 1929, more than half of all single American women were gainfully employed, and many of them lived in large cities, alone and unsupervised, in boardinghouses or private apartments.

Thanks to mechanization, working people found that their hours dropped, while wages rose. Young people suddenly had more time on their hands and more money to spend. And they had all kinds of new public amusements on which to spend it: dance halls, movie palaces, amusement parks and baseball stadiums sprang up everywhere.

These amusements were meant for men and women to enjoy together. Popular amusement park concessions included romantic rides like the Tunnel of Love, and scary rides meant to induce mock terror and encourage clinging and hugging. In the dance halls, women stayed out late, smoking, drinking and carrying on with men, engaging in the new dances with their wild movements and close embraces.

Instead of paying calls, young men and women were now going on “dates,” a term that social commentators still  placed between quotation marks in the immediate pre-War years.

In contrast to the more circumscribed rituals of courting, the new dating culture led to increased sexual frankness and experimentation.

Although women were earning more money then ever before, wage and employment discrimination were rampant. Most working girls could barely earn enough to survive, and could not afford to go to movies or amusement parks on their own, nor afford the fancy clothes such activities required. So dating soon evolved into a system whereby men paid for dinners, movies and admissions, and women were unofficially expected to provide some physical and romantic attention in return.

The unwritten expectation that women would reciprocate sexually in return for indulging in social opportunities was completely new. Since dating was centered on public leisure activities that cost money, it took away much of the power women had held under the courtship system, and instead gave the advantage to men, who had the money to spend.

(Zeitz 29-38)


Filed under 20th Century

Benjamin Franklin and Electricity

Most of us grew up with a general idea that Benjamin Franklin “discovered” electricity. As adults we realize that can’t be entirely true. So just what does Benjamin Franklin have to do with electricity? And what’s with the kite?

In Franklin’s day, electricity was understood no better than it had been in ancient times. Entertainers and pranksters used static electricity to shock people for laughs, and that was about it.

In 1747, Franklin received from a fellow tinkerer a device for generating static electricity. Entranced by the object, Franklin commissioned a local glassblower and silversmith to make more such gadgets. He used them to collect electric charges and conduct experiments.

His first great discovery was that the generation of a positive charge is accompanied by the generation of an equal negative charge. This concept, known as the law of conservation of charge, was a major scientific breakthrough. Before Franklin’s discovery, scientists believed that electricity involved two independently-created fluids, known as vitreous and resinous; Franklin’s findings instead demonstrated the single-fluid theory of electricity.

Franklin’s single-fluid theory and his law of conservation of charge have now withstood over 250 years of practical application.

Franklin needed to invent some new terms in order to explain his findings to the scientific community. In a letter to a colleague he wrote: “We say B is electrised positively; A negatively: or rather B is electrised plus and A minus… These terms we may use until your philosophers give us better.” In fact, no better terms were needed; we use Franklin’s to this day. His other neologisms include neutral, condense, and conductor.

Franklin experimented with capturing and storing electrical charges using a device called a Leyden jar, which was a primitive form of capacitor. These experiments led to his invention of a new device, also still in use today, which he named the electrical battery.

Another important Franklin discovery was the fact that metal points draw electrical charges more readily than do blunt pieces of metal. This led to his most famous experiment and one of his most indispensable inventions.

More background is needed here. In Franklin’s day, lightning was feared as one of the most destructive of natural forces. Scientists did not understand the phenomenon; it was generally explained as a supernatural occurrence, an expression of God’s wrath. In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas had declared that the sound of church bells would repel lightning strikes; 500 years later, church bells were still being rung at the approach of a thunderstorm.

This was a singularly bad idea. During one 35-year period in Germany, 386 churches were struck and more than 100 bell ringers killed. In Venice, lightning struck a church where gunpowder was being stored, and three thousand people lost their lives.

Franklin believed it was time to try another solution.

In November of 1749 he recorded in his journal the strange similarities he had noticed between lightning and electrical sparks. Both gave off the same color of light; both were swift and had the same crooked shape, and made the same type of noise; both were conducted by metals, could kill animals, and were accompanied by a sulfurous smell.

Since there were so many similarities between lightning and electricity, might there not be yet another similarity? Might not lightning, like electricity, be drawn to a metal point?

If this supposition were true, then it might be possible to tame one of the greatest natural dangers known to mankind.

This is what he set out to prove by his famous experiment.Using a silk kite with a sharp wire attached to the top and a metal key suspended near the end of the string, he was able to draw off sparks from a passing storm cloud. It is remarkable that he did not kill himself in the process. But by this means he proved that lightning could indeed be deliberately drawn off by the use of a lightning rod.

Few scientific discoveries have provided such an immediate practical benefit to humanity. By proving that electricity and lightning were the same thing, Franklin transformed a deadly supernatural force into a scientific phenomenon that could be controlled. Within the year, lightning rods were being installed all over Europe and the colonies, and Franklin was suddenly a famous man.

(Isaacson 133-145)

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Filed under 17th Century