Electrocuting Whales: Practical Electrics Magazine (1921-1924)

So, I’m hunkering down on my latest essay, which bears the working title, “The Pro-Innovation Bias in Tort Law.” This piece expands on something else that I recently wrote. The current work-in-progress considers (in some detail) how and why, contrary to conventional wisdom,* tort law tends to temporarily subsidize, rather than penalize, innovations. I’m hoping to get the piece out for the February / March submission round, but goodness knows if that will happen.

Anyhow, I may use the essay to talk a little about the first wave of personal-injury lawsuits that involved electrical shocks, though I haven’t decided for certain whether or where this discussion would fit within the larger narrative. These lawsuits, dating from the late 1800s and early 1900s, produced some interesting judicial opinions, the guts of which I will leave for later. For now, I’ll just underscore that electricity, like many other new technologies, elicited awe and hope, not just fear. For every person concerned about the perils of the new technology, there was another — some of whom sat as judges, or jurors — fascinated by its potential.

The cover art to Practical Electrics magazine hints at the conflicting feelings that many members of the public held toward electricity back in the early 1900s. For those of you who don’t spend your waking hours tracking pulp periodicals of the early 20th Century, Practical Electrics was a short-lived (1921-1924) publication that apprised readers of the era about how electricity might, someday if not today, lead to advances such as electric barbershops, eavesdropping devices, and tools for seduction.

Happily, the folks over at MagazineArt.org have posted the wonderful cover art for all issues of Practical Electrics, so you can see what I mean. The titles to these covers say it all: “A Dog-Gone Shock,” “A Violent Ray” (which, like a “Dog Gone Shock,” pictures a child using electricity to torture or frighten an animal), “Electric Fish Alarm,” “The Electric Maid,” “The Electric Ghost,” ”A Sparking Party,” “The Electric Dog,” ”Amplified Love,” and, my personal favorite, “Electrocuting Whales.”

* Federal law requires all law-review articles to start with this phrase.

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