An Historian of Science Discovers the “Light Switch”

Historian and philosopher Emma Houston interrogates the science of electricity and light bulbs

The light switch was at the center of Houston’s first big foray into the history of electricity and lights. The story told in introductory electrical engineering textbooks is relatively simple: flipping the switch up turns the lights “on”; flipping the switch down turns the lights “off.” Whether a switch is in the on or off position has for for decades been seen as an expression of a light bulb’s “true” state or of “light itself.” It is the job of a science historian to discover where these stories come from, and why.

Houston’s doctoral dissertation, published in 2004 as Light Itself: The Search for On and Off in the Electric Circuit does just this, tracing the history of the idea that electromagnetic radiation is turned “on” and “off” by switches found on the wall. Early in the twentieth century, she shows, it was controversial to refer to “light switches” because sometimes electricians accidentally wired around them when installing lights.

But the fact that switches are visible, (unlike electricity) made them useful for enough to two groups of engineers–those building electrical circuits, and those working to untangle the role of electricity in light generation–that the association between switches and light solidified for decades.

Associating “light” with the “light switch,” writes Richardson, has serious consequences, as when engineers tried to develop a “super flashlight” that used two light switches and multiple batteries.

The “super flashlight” was finally abandoned in the development stage when engineers decided it was simpler to use bigger batteries, but in Light Itself, Houston argues that it made the light switch the star of electrical engineering in a way that still reverberates. She points to engineers like Professor Book, whose research focused for decades on using light switches to design home lighting plans. Such a focus was not inevitable, Houston argues: from the 1920s through the 50s, based on evidence in lasers, researchers saw buttons as drivers of light output.

It turns out that “light switches” do not actually cause bulbs to emit electromagnetic radiation. Engineers now understand that light, produced by incandescent bulbs as well as LEDs and compact fluorescents, is the result of numerous interconnected capacitors, resistors, power sources, and wire circuits that all work together. So called “light switches” do not cause light at all–they merely open and close light circuits, allowing electricity to flow (or not) to the bulbs.

But in an interview, Professor Book disagrees with Houston’s account. In Houston’s history, the super flashlight looms large in later researchers’ decision to focus on the switch, but Professor Book responds that research on the super flashlight “did not interest me, it did not impress me, it did not look like the the foundations of a path forward.” Building circuits around the light switch, he says, was not inspired by the popular image of a super bright flashlight with two switches, but “was simply the easiest way to design practical lighting for people’s houses” and that “flipping the switch does actually turn the lights on and off.”

Houston responds that of course we can’t expect actual engineers to know what inspired them or their fields, which is why we need science historians like herself to suss out what was really motivating them.

Author’s note: Professor Houston has degrees in philosophy and literature, but oddly, none in engineering or physics.

This parody is thanks to Harvard Magazine’s The Science of Sex: Historian and Philosopher Sarah Richardson Interrogates the Science of Sex and Gender.





Your Own, Personal, Immigrant

A reaction to Politico’s “What if you could get your own personal immigrant” article (with apologies to Depeche Mode):

Reach out and touch poverty
Your own personal immigrant
Someone to hear your orders
Someone who cares for your kids
Your own personal immigrant
Someone to hear your orders
Someone who’s trapped
Feeling unknown
And they’re all alone
Flesh and bone
No minimum wage at home
Just like Uber
I’ll make you a believer
Take second best
Put indentured servitude to the test
Things on your chest
You need to confess
You just want a slave

I will deliver your luxury
You know I’m expendable
Reach out and touch poverty
Your own personal immigrant
Reach out and touch poverty

Distance, Surface, Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies: A Relativistic Critique of Maxwellcentric Conceptions of “Knowing” Bodies

Note: This post, What if Famous Scientists Wrote like Gender Scholars? originally appeared as a guest post on Lawrence Glarus’s blog.

Have you ever wondered what famous math/science works would sound like if they had been written by gender scholars? Then today is your lucky day!

I. Distance, Surface, Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies: A Relativistic Critique of Maxwellcentric Conceptions of “Knowing” Bodies, by A. Einstein

In Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, Isaac Newton examines the sensory and cognitive, mathematical processes involved in rendering bodies in motion as remaining in motion and bodies at rest as remaining at rest, using the language of infinitessimal, geometric calculus. Maxwellcentric social norms emphasize differences, rather than similarities, between moving electrodynamic bodies, creating perceptions of asymmetries which do not appear to be inherent in the phenomena. In this paper I focus on a particular subjectivity and a particular spatiality. The subjectivity is that of dominant Western Maxwellcentric electrodynamics. The spatiality is the specific organisation of spacetime through which that subjectivity is constituted and through which it sees the world, a problematic described here as a relativistic space of electrodynamic self/knowledge. Take, for example, the reciprocal, non-patriarchal electrodynamic action of a magnet (“masculine”) and a conductor (“feminine”). By introducing the “infinitessimal” metaphor, Newton enables theoretical development in how cultural norms and sensory perceptions shape the social construction of spacetime curvature around the action of the magnet and conductor. The observable phenomenon here depends only on the relative motion of the conductor and the magnet, whereas the customary, phallocentric, Maxwellian view draws a sharp, “othering” distinction between the two cases in which either the one or the other of these bodies is in motion.  In the process of electrodynamic attribution, cognitive filters guide our attention to certain features of bodies marked as different (e.g., spin, charge, mass), while priming us to ignore other features of bodies (e.g., shape, velocity). The move from a structuralist account in which “electricity” is understood to structure activities between magnets and conductors in relatively homologous way to a view of hegemony in which electrodynamic powers are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of space structure, and marked a shift from a form of Maxwellian theory that takes structural, atomic totalities as theoretical objects (eg, photons, electrons,) to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of unified spacetime structures inaugurate a renewed conception of electrodynamics as bound up with contingent bodies.

It is thus argued that certain psychoanalytic Newtonian electrodynamic theories—like all psychodynamic mathematics—can offer a critical account of Maxwellcentric kinematics of the rigid body, since the assertions of any such theory have to do with the relationships between rigid bodies (systems of co-ordinates), clocks, and electromagnetic processes, which is also a critical account of the production of visual space-time interactions. Insufficient consideration of this circumstance lies at the root of the difficulties which the electrodynamics of moving bodies at present encounters. …


II. The Construction of Shapes as a Quintessentially Masculine Subject: The Elements of Geometric Gender, by Euclid of Alexandria

Definition 1.
A point is that which has no gender, ergo, is invisible to cisheteronormative ways of “seeing.”

Definition 2.
A line is conceptualized by Freudian psychodynamics as a phallus.

Definition 3.
The ends of a line are points, an imposition of patriarchal masculinization upon a formerly a-gendered space.

Definition 4.
A straight line is a line which has internalized cis-hetero-normative expectations of psychodynamic sexual relations between “men” and “women,” producing an arbitrary gender binary that contributes to the erasure and oppression of non-binary performing individuals.

Definition 5.
A surface is that which presents the illusion of impenetrability along its length and breadth, except by the masculine, heteronormative phallus, reinforcing colonialist narratives of the importance of male dominance.

Definition 6.
The edges of a surface are an a-structural post-colonist region of conceptualized “boundaries” between “masculine” and “feminine”.

Definition 7.
A plane surface is an unbounded, limitless potentiality-space which lies evenly with the conception of heteronormaty imposed on itself.

Definition 8.
A plane angle is the homosexual inclination to one another of two lines (constructed masculinities) in a plane which meet one another and hereafter reject heteronormative coupling with non-angles.

Definition 9.
And when the lines containing the angle are viewed through the lens of patriarchal heteronormativity, the angle is called recti-(ie, rectum)-linear (ie, phallus.)

Definition 10.
When a straight line standing on a straight line oppresses the adjacent angles, subverting their equality to one another, each of the equal angles is justified in its demand for self-expression, and the straight line standing on the other is called an oppressor (capitalist, bourgeois,) to that on which it stands (the subject, colonized, feminized “other.”) …


III. On the Deconstruction of “Species” as a “Natural” category: a Feminist Approach to re-imagining the Descent of (Hu)”man” Outside the Patriarchal Supremacy Paradigm, by C. Darwin

Chapter 1: Variation Under Domestication

Unquestioned patriarchic thought modes employ explicit categorization of living beings into unchanging, discreet hierarchies, from beast to angel, placing man–qua man–in the topmost, “in the image of god,” (the masculine) position. In this paper, I draw upon the theories of Buffon, Lamarck, Saint-Hilaire, Wells, Herbert, and others to develop a counter-narrative, feminist proposal that nature (“feminine,” but against patriarchal codings, red in tooth and claw, not maternal,) is the source of selective pressures that gradually transform one species into another.

When on board H.M.S. Beagle, as a queer-identified trans-racial feminist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the oppressed, post/colonial indigenous persons of color of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. The constructed masculinities of domination embodied by the colonist sphere struck me as throwing light upon the sharp, hierarchical divisions between beings which lead to my revelation that change, over time, could account for the origins of that which we insist on calling “species.”

When we examine the effects of patriarchal subjugation and domination of plant and animal forms for the satisfaction of human appetites, we are struck forcefully by the great diversity of outcomes: the domesticated, “husbanded” forms differ much more from each other, than do the individuals of any one species or variety in a state of natural, feminine, stewardship. When we reflect on the vast diversity of the plants and animals which have been cultivated, and which have varied during all ages under the most different climates and treatment, I think we are driven to conclude that this greater variability is due to man’s (masculine) drive to divide, differentiate, subdue, and consume. Even our oldest cultivated, “domesticated”–as in domestic, housewife, feminine, dominated by the patriarchal–varieties of plants and animals such as wheat, are still often driven to produce new varieties or “improvements” that exist, of course, only for improving their economy or taste on a human’s palate, not for marked change in the individual being’s experience of life or joy. …


I hope you all enjoyed reading those as much as I enjoyed writing them.

With apologies to Albert Einstein’s On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies, Euclid’s Elements, Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species by Natural Selection, and Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica.

With no apologies to: Blind to Sameness: Sexpectations and the Social Construction of Male and Female Bodies, Distance, Surface, Elsewhere: A Feminist Critique of the Space of Phallocentric Self/Knowledge, The Construction of Physics as a Quintessentially Masculine Subject: Young People’s Perceptions of Gender Issues in Access to Physics, Science: A Masculine Disorder? or Judith Butler.

And with special thanks to Lawrence Glarus for hosting me and to Twitter’s NewRealPeerReview for curating the list of atrocious (but real) papers that inspired this post.