Carolyn Thomas Caroline Thomas Home read an excerpt
Book Blurb
The Body Electric
How Strange Machines Built the Modern American
Carolyn de la Peña

Recent Press

In "The Original Nordic Track" (The Daily Beast [Andrew Sullivan], January 5, 2013)

In "Going to the Gym Today? Thank This 19th-Century Orthopedist" (The Atlantic, January 2, 2013)


“Transforming archival research into sparkling prose, The Body Electric explains how Americans learned to use machines to seek health, sexual rejuvenation, and physical transformation. This innovative book is both an entertaining history of fads and foibles and a groundbreaking cultural critique of the continuing obsession with achieving physical perfection.”
—David E. Nye, author of Electrifying America and America as Second Creation

“This provocative exploration of the concept of energy in American medicine deftly ranges across medical theories, exercise machines and their inventors, early human potential movements, popular fads of electricity and radiation, and the national mood at the turn of the twentieth century. The author writes with wit and sympathy about medical theories and devices that may now seem like outright quackery but that formerly appealed to the educated as well as the gullible in their elusive search for good health. Building upon on a vast and vastly entertaining literature of medical pamphlets and ephemera, Carolyn Thomas de la Peña brings a discerning intelligence and an energetic analytic style to the cultural history of medicine, faith, science, and technology.”
—Jeffrey L. Meikle, University of Texas, Austin

“The Body Electric is the so-far missing puzzle piece in our nineteenth-twentieth century knowledge of the social history of the human body and technology—a richly illustrated study showing two centuries of technologizing the human body against fears of weakness, enervation, sexual depletion.”
—Cecelia Tichi, author of Shifting Gears: Technology, Literature, Culture in Modernist America

“Covers its subject well, provides useful context, and makes lively reading for anyone interested in the history of technology, the social context of electricity and radioactive materials, or the history of alternative medicine.”
Technology and Culture

“Not only provides a richly detailed and suprising account of long-forgotten artifacts, but also fleshes out the longer history of some still-familiar attitudes toward health and vitality.”
Journal of Social History

Between the years 1850 and 1950, Americans became the leading energy consumers on the planet, expending tremendous physical resources on energy exploration, mental resources on energy exploitation, and monetary resources on energy acquisition. A unique combination of pseudoscientific theories of health and the public’s rudimentary understanding of energy created an age in which sources of industrial power seemed capable of curing the physical limitations and ill health that plagued Victorian bodies. Licensed and “quack” physicians alike promoted machines, electricity, and radium as invigorating cures, veritable “fountains of youth” that would infuse the body with energy and push out disease and death.

The Body Electric is the first book to place changing ideas about fitness and gender in dialogue with the popular culture of technology. Whether through wearing electric belts, drinking radium water, or lifting mechanized weights, many Americans came to believe that by embracing the nation's rapid march to industrialization, electrification, and “radiomania,” their bodies would emerge fully powered. Only by uncovering this belief’s passions and products, Thomas de la Peña argues, can we fully understand our culture’s twentieth-century energy enthusiasm.

The Body Electric

2010, 347 pp, 20 illustrations
$22.00 Paper, 9780814719831
$60.00 Cloth, 9780814719534
New York University Press


Copyright 2010 Carolyn Thomas