If you think electric fencing is a modern day idea, think again. The concept was featured in a book published 184 years ago! The author was Mrs Frances Trollope, an English woman who lived during the reign of English King William IV and who travelled to the United States whilst President Andrew Jackson was in power.
In Chapter 7 of her first book ‘Domestic Manners of the Americans’ which was published in 1832, she described how a museum display was protected by wires connected to an electrical machine. The book itself became a bestseller, not for its revolutionary idea of museum security but because it was regarded by many as highly controversial.
Mark Twain read her book and declared openly that he found her observations both amusing and impressive. He was quoted as saying ‘Mrs Trollope was so handsomely cursed and reviled by this nation [for] telling the truth… she was painting a state of things which did not change at once. … I remember it.’
Over 50 years later, in 1889 Mark Twain published his novel ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’. In it he featured an electric fence. Coincidence? Perhaps, or might it be that Mrs Trollope’s writing left a more distinct impression upon Twain’s imagination than he realized? Twain’s electric fence is in the part of the story where Hank’s band is trapped in Merlin’s Cave and to defend and protect themselves they use a mixture of weapons: a minefield, some Gatling guns and ‘electric wire’ as Twain calls it. Merlin ends up getting electrocuted on the wires.
Where Twain got the idea of his electric fence from is, of course, open to debate but apart from Mrs Trollope’s possible influence, we think there could have been others.
When living in San Francisco Twain befriended Jules Verne. In 1870 (19 years before ‘A Connecticut Yankee …’) Verne published his incomparable ‘20,000 Leagues Under The Sea’. In it Verne featured what he called ‘The Lightning Bolts of Captain Nemo’ which was essentially using electrification as a defensive weapon.
Mark Twain’s Interest In Electric Power
Twain’s interest in the power and potential of electrical energy was not limited to fiction. He also knew Nikola Tesla, one of the greatest scientific geniuses that has ever lived. Tesla invented, amongst other things, the Alternating Current electrical supply system that we all know and rely on today.
It is highly likely that Twain asked Tesla many questions about electrical energy and that the pair had some interesting discussions. Indeed, there is some photographic evidence to support this notion. In the Spring of 1894 Twain paid a visit to Tesla’s laboratory and this photograph was taken. Twain is pictured holding Tesla’s experimental vacuum lamp which was powered by a loop of wire receiving electromagnetic energy from a Tesla coil.
It is said that many great creative artists and scientists developed their style from a combination of influences. Shakespeare, Bach, Mozart, Rembrandt, Einstein and Tesla are prime examples of those whose influence has been far reaching.
The influence of Mark Twain on writers and society as a whole is significant, of that there is no doubt and for that we owe him a debt of gratitude. Whilst Twain may not have been the first writer to use the idea of an electric fence as a form of perimeter defence, he was clearly inspired by others and the fact that we are talking about it today in a world where perimeter security is increasingly relevant, underlines the importance of him doing so. Art, including imaginative story-telling, can play a valid part in our perception of the world.