In all those years of dealing with power, he was shocked : to realize he never knew what electricity was

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My confession that I don’t know what electricity is, or how it makes a doorbell ring, has brought me more empathy than scorn.

“It’s a pleasure,” writes Hi Olsen of Ventura, “to know that someone else doesn’t know how a telephone works and can’t visualize electricity running down a little wire like water. May I join your club?

“Just the other day I was thinking that if I was the last person on Earth I wouldn’t know enough to build a radio to listen to the news!”


I’d be in the same boat. But of course if Olsen were the last person on Earth, or I was, there wouldn’t be any news.

Vance Geier writes that one thing makes technological illiterates of us all. “It’s called mystery ,” he says.

He quotes a scientist who confessed:

“If we ask whether the position of the electron remains the same, we must say ‘No’; if we ask whether the electron’s position changes with time, we must say “No’; if we ask whether it is at rest, we must say ‘No’; if we ask whether it is in motion, we must say ‘No.’ ”

Evidently scientists don’t know what electricity is either.

Robert Lee of Newport Beach, retired vice president of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, writes that in all the years he spent trying to explain that department to the press he never knew what electricity was himself.

“It is interesting that in all that time and in all my contacts with hundreds of reporters,” he recalls, “I was lucky that not one of them ever asked me to explain what electricity was.

“I suppose my rationalization for not delving deeper into the mysteries of electricity was my feeling that if I became an ‘expert’ I was in danger of grinding out releases that would be as complicated and confusing as the technical reports prepared by the engineers. My function was to write about what was going on in newspaper English, which meant plain English that reporters and readers could understand. . . .”

Lee doesn’t mention that he didn’t know much about water, either. I once irritated him seriously by referring to Los Angeles’ water as “artificial.” He insisted that there was no such thing as artificial water.


I have never given up on that point. Any water that is treated with chemicals, it seems to me, is artificial water. (In one of his novels Joseph Wambaugh calls sparkling bottled water “designer water.”)

Lee advises me not to worry about not understanding electricity, just to use it wisely, and call the DWP when my power goes out, so their repair crews can restore service and “you can use your word processor, keep your beer cold, and adjust your electric bed.”

Tom Bernard of San Clemente reminds me that I’m not alone in my ignorance.

“You must be aware that no one understands how anything works. To be certain, scientists can explain how a doorbell works and other scientists can explain about birds and bees--and the sperm and the ova and the genetic code--but each layer of erudition only raises more unanswered questions than existed before. Therefore, no one has any reason to feel inferior because he can’t explain why a raindrop forms or why people fall in love.”

Mike Kilgore of Mar Vista conjures up a fantasy that has troubled me for years:

“I have often imagined as some sort of perverse cosmic joke that if time travel should become possible during my life I would be the the first person to be sent back into the past. After finally convincing the powers that be that I was from their future I would dazzle them with a long list of the technological marvels we are blessed, and cursed, with.

“However, when pressed for specifics beyond the list I would uh and er them into tears of rage and eventually they would jail me as a supreme hoaxer. . . .”

I have often imagined that someone like Benjamin Franklin has reappeared on Earth and I am having breakfast with him.

Can you imagine Ben’s amazement when I drop two pieces of bread in the toaster and it pops up toasted?


What a thrill it would be to see his face when he saw what had become of his humble experiments with electricity!

Then I would dumbfound him by demonstrating radio, the telephone, electric lights and television. But the first thing he’d want to know, of course, is how all those things worked, and the only thing I could say would be something like, ‘Well, you know, you plug it in and turn it on, and, uh, well--it just works.”

Wouldn’t that drive him mad?

Leslie Howard played in a 1933 movie called “Berkeley Square,” in which he, a contemporary, is returned to 18th-Century London. I’ve forgotten the details now but he naturally has what the people of 18th-Century London consider fantastic visions of the future, and of course he gets into all kinds of trouble. Nobody likes a visionary.

Remember Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee? When he woke up back in King Arthur’s time he was hailed as a greater wizard than Merlin because he was able to predict an eclipse of the sun that he remembered as having occurred on a certain date.

If I were transported back to the 18th Century, like Leslie Howard, I’d be regarded as an insane babbler, and put in an asylum. I wouldn’t even get the girl.

I believe the girl was Heather Angel.