»  The Straggler, No. 45

August 7th, 2006

  I Sing the Hobby Electric


My wife, a very frugal person, ever on the lookout for household savings, recently instructed me that we must unplug all electric devices when we are not using them. What, the TV? Yes, the TV. Computers? Yes, computers. The standard lamps? Yes, the standard lamps. Apparently she had read something in a magazine about how much electricity appliances use when standing idle. I am not sure she got it right, though.

"The electricity leaks out if you keep the appliance plugged in," she instructed me.

"In that case, wouldn't it just leak out of the empty wall receptacles anyway?" I asked.

She had no answer. I did not feel myself on very sure ground either, so I did not pursue the topic further. For a couple of days I tried to comply with the new directive, but all sorts of obstacles showed up. The plug to the microwave is well-nigh inaccessible in a crevice behind the kitchen cabinets. The computers all have uninterruptible power supplies that go into a frenzy of demonic beeping if unplugged. Nobody could figure out how to stop the beeping; nobody could find the instruction manual. The laptop is plugged in for recharging when not in use. The standard lamp receptacle is behind our very heavy sofa … and so on. Now, a week later, I believe the only idle electric appliance we are still conscientiously unplugging is the kettle.

Electricity is of course a great boon to mankind, but I can't say I have ever considered it a friend of mine. My earliest memories of the stuff date from my childhood in England, where, for reasons I do not know, but probably arising from the post-WWII Attlee government's experiment in socialism, British retailers were not permitted to sell electrical appliances with a plug attached. This edict — which would have done credit to the famously crazy Caliph al-Hakim of Egypt, who prohibited chess and women's shoes, and punished cheating merchants by having one of his slaves (the fellow's name was Masoud) sodomize them — meant that the British consumer, having bought his appliance, was obliged to buy a plug separately and wire it up at home, or pay someone to do it for him. My father, another tightwad, chose to do the wiring himself. Since he was the clumsiest man in the entire East Midlands, possessed of large blunt fingers and a short temper, it is a miracle that the Derbyshires were not incinerated. As soon as I was old enough to grasp the situation, I secretly went round the house rewiring all the plugs.

At school, electricity became a subject, part of Physics. It was the part I enjoyed least. Optics was a wonderful game of hide-and-seek, with the mysterious image doing the hiding, though sometimes you could capture it, miraculous and tiny, on a sheet of white card. Mechanics let you indulge a boy's passion for crashing things into other things — blocks sliding down slopes, or across tables under friction, or swinging at the ends of pendulums, or wobbling on springs according to Hooke's rather obvious law. Electricity, though, was a dull affair of iron filings and Wheatstone Bridges. The iron filings seemed to take pleasure in doing the opposite of what they were supposed to do, and I never did understand what was happening in a Wheatstone Bridge, though I went through the drills, noted the results, and passed the exams capably enough.

It was there, in Physics class, that I parted company with electricity. Our teacher — he died in 1965, after I had graduated, from the consequences of having been gassed on the Western Front a half-century earlier — told us that electric current was like water flowing along a hosepipe, with voltage being equivalent to the water pressure, and amperage the rate of flow. In that case, I asked, should not a severed electric cable squirt electricity out from its free end? No, replied the old Tommy, the electricity would flow only if the potential at its destination were lower than at its source. The thought that then sneaked into my mind was of course: How does it know? I did not venture to ask out loud for fear of seeming a fool, but my interest in electricity ended just there.

That was the case, anyway, at the level of amps, volts, and ohms. Studying math at university, I took a course on electromagnetic theory, the end point of which was the derivation of Maxwell's equations in their tensor form. It is a beautiful, beautiful theory, from which the universal constant c — the speed of light in vacuo — drops out like a perfectly shelled walnut. It all seemed very ethereal, though, in quite a different realm from Mr. Wheatstone and his bridges, or Dad's potentially lethal fumblings with Live and Ground.

Much, much later I acquired my present house, a cozy 1925 colonial in the outer New York suburbs. At the time we moved in, the wiring had been altered very little since the Coolidge administration. There was a single two-up receptacle per room: as an elderly neighbor explained, one outlet for the standard lamp, one for a phonograph or radio. On a trip to Home Depot I picked up a handbook on electrical wiring and commenced to study it, in defiance of a bumper sticker I saw at around the same time, mass-produced by the electricians' union no doubt, warning that wiring is not a hobby: hire a professional.

At the risk of lifetime ostracism by union electricians, I can tell you that in fact wiring is a hobby, and a rather engrossing one. I quickly got up to speed on junction boxes, GFCI, the difference between BX and Romex, and the value of a good fish tape. My house's wiring is now state of the art, or very nearly so. The only thing that defeated me was a four-way switch. Three-way switches I had easily mastered, and it stood to reason that a four-way switch should be only 33 percent more difficult to wire up. Not so: After many hours of scrutinizing appropriate websites, and trying to decipher the cryptic, multilingual little instruction sheets that come with electrical doodads, I gave up and immured the wretched main switch behind a panel of sheetrock, leaving the surviving switches in the circuit to work as a three-way. Plainly I have attained my level of incompetence as an electrician. And I still don't understand why electricity doesn't spray out from the end of a severed cable.