Isenstadt’s book explores an understudied field, making valuable contributions and connections between studies of science, technology, and society (STS) as well as art and architectural history. The book is also written in a sophisticated yet accessible manner for readers who simply want to expand their horizon. His essay style may be frustrating for some, but I enjoyed each insight as they began filling in a whole image, like individual pixels to form a unique take on light and lighting in our architectural experience of home, the landscape, and the city as well as domestic interaction, travel, and work.
Readers will recognize references to classic texts from STS or material culture studies on electric light or urban infrastructure by authors such as David Nye (Electrifying America, 1990) or Wolfgang Schivelbusch (Disenchanted Night, 1988). He also situates his research in the history and theory of modern architecture (e.g., Dietrich Neumann, Architecture of the Night, 2002). However, the power of Isenstadt’s work is to add a broad set of new visual and textual historical references that paint a much more variegated picture of the societal relationships modulated in space with the widespread introduction of electric light.
The book is divided into five distinct sections: controlling electric light, driving at night, lighting settings for work, placing electric signage, and enforcing wartime blackouts. The introduction sets the scene for the reader, making a clear distinction between light from a flame (e.g., gaslights or candles) and electric light. Following seamlessly from the introduction is a surprising chapter on how the now mundane light switch was once associated with miraculous transformations of space. Presidents from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy are shown ceremoniously “flipping the switch” while everyday homeowners are shown in an equally powerful and empowered manner when they transform their domestic space instantaneously and safely.