This Is Why Benjamin Harrison Was Afraid Of Electricity

At 5'6", 23rd President of the United States Benjamin "Little Ben" Harrison would have been easy to overlook if not for his career, presence, and oratorical skills, as stated on the White House website. Harrison fought for the Union in the Civil War and made it to the rank of brevet brigadier general before becoming Senator in 1881, followed by the presidency in 1889. Defined as a "moderate Republican" (remember that Republican-Democrat party ideologies were opposite what they are today), Harrison was known for defending the rights of Native Americans from railroads, pushing for bigger pensions for soldiers, having a vigorous foreign policy, and enacting the Sherman Antitrust Act (1890) to deregulate international trade restrictions, as described on Britannica.

But of course, history doesn't remember Harrison for his accomplishments or his character. Harrison is remembered for a strange idiosyncrasy that coincided with the technological revolution of the late 1800s, one which has left Harrison an object of historical mockery. In 1891, a mere 13 years after the Edison Electric Light Company was founded in 1878 to market Thomas Edison's "incandescent lamps," per Britannica, Harrison made a key update to the historical White House: Namely, he ordered electric power to be installed.

Harrison himself, however, wanted nothing to do with electricity or electric lights. Or at least, he wanted nothing to do with the lights' switches.  

Let there be electric light

Harrison has been sometimes portrayed as a Luddite for his fear of electricity, but he had no objection at all to new technology — after all, he did order electricity to be installed in the White House. Another case in point: He was the first president to have his voice recorded (the recording can be heard on YouTube), as Potus Geeks reports.

It wasn't so much that Harrison was afraid of electric power itself, but rather of getting shocked by touching light switches. This was not an unreasonable fear, in fact, as electric power was a relatively new invention, and wiring was often crude at best. The White House's wires, in fact, were strung across the lawn from the Edison Company's generators, as Gizmodo recounts, then buried in plaster before making their way to round switches. They were only ever meant to supplement traditional gas lights. And so, Harrison straight up refused to touch the switches, and only White House staff and domestic servants took the duty upon themselves. It was even rumored that this fear drove Harrison and his wife, Caroline, to sometime sleep with the lights on.

After he lost his reelection run to Grover Cleveland in 1893, Harrison moved to Indianapolis to practice law at age 62. He was often called upon for his oratorical skills to give speeches and presentations. In the end, though, Harrison's electrophobic quirk would be his legacy more than anything he did in or out of office.