Boston Electric: Science by ‘Mail Order’ and Bricolage at Colonial Harvard


Schechner, Sara J. “Boston Electric: Science by ‘Mail Order’ and Bricolage at Colonial Harvard.” In The Oxford Handbook of History and Material Culture, edited by Ivan Gaskell and Sarah Anne Carter, 170-199. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.


With a focus on the experimental apparatus employed and the sociable exchange of ideas, this chapter examines how electricity was taught to Harvard students and members of polite society in the Boston area over the course of the century. Without local instrument makers or suppliers of glass and brass parts, colonial American experimenters had to import equipment and repair parts from London. When time and money discouraged imports, they became bricoleurs, incorporating recycled, traded, and ready-to-hand materials into their apparatus. Benjamin Franklin was an important intermediary in getting scientific instruments from London to Boston and Cambridge, and he shared instructional know-how so that locals could assemble their own Leyden jars and other electrical instruments.

Last updated on 06/21/2020