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“Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940” by David E. Nye, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1990. This 479 page paperback provides a detailed look at the social implications of electrification in America. Thomas Edison invented the electric incandescent light, but in the process he also invented the electric utility. Just as the integrated circuit led to the personal computer and a host of new technologies, electrification lasted from 1890 to 1930, and for most of that period was the largest consumer of invested capital. (The railroad investment age is given as 1835-1890; the automobile investment age must be 1910+.)

The focus of the book is Muncie, IN, a mid-size American city which has been much studied by social scientists. It is sometimes called “Middletown” in these studies. The book covers street and commercial lighting, streetcars and interurbans, electrification of industry, and rural electrification.

Arc lights were the first artificial electric lights. They were known from 1802, but a power source was problematic until 1877, when Philadelphia's Franklin Institute concluded the Charles F. Brush dynamo (Brush Electric, 1880) was most practical. Orders poured in. An arc lighting system was installed at the courthouse in Wabash, IN, in 1880, four months after Edison demonstrated his electric light at Menlo Park. By 1881, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Montreal, Buffalo, San Francisco, Cleveland and other cities had Brush arc light streetlight systems. By 1882, St. Louis had a Brush arc system installed for its Fall Festival. (Brush Electric became part of General Electric in 1891.)

Developers soon realized lighting up the night attracted crowds. Lighting demonstrations were featured at expositions from 1883 (Louisville) to 1904 (St. Louis). Department stores, Marshall Field in Chicago and Jordan Marsh in Boston, were early adopters of arc lighting. Electric light was cleaner than gas, produced no smoke, no odor, no moisture, and no oxygen consumption. In addition, reduced risk allowed lower fire insurance rates.

Edison began sales to the public in 1885. Small DC systems were installed at Mt. Carmel, Sunbury (on the Susquehanna River in central PA), Johnstown, PA, Laramie, WY, Topeka, KS, Jackson, MI, in abt 1885, and in seven major buildings in Chicago. Streetlights, businesses, and upper class homes were early customers. Most urban homes were electrified between 1915 and 1930. In Muncie, electric service was provided from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., at a flat rate, unmetered. But initially only 100 watts was available, often a single light in the center of the house. Some homes were wired for as little as $10, payable in installments. Fire alarm boxes, burglar alarms, and watchman clocks were available in Muncie by 1889.

The book provides excellent coverage of the streetcar and interurbans. Streetcars grew out of the congestion in major cities caused by dependence on the horse. People tended to live within about 5 mi. of downtown businesses, and the streets were filled with horse carts and coaches. Street railroads using horse-pulled cars were adopted after small steam engines proved unacceptable due to noise, dirt, and they frightened horses. But horse cars did little to relieve congestion.

Thomas Edison undertook development of electric streetcars at Menlo Park with support from Henry Villard in 1880-82. Villard had been a leader in financing the Northern Pacific Railroad, and later was president of Edison General Electric Co. Stephen Field built an early electric streetcar system in Stockbridge, MA. Edison and Field merged their companies to form Electric Railway Co., which had a demonstration line at the Chicago Railway Exposition in 1883. Early systems used a third rail. The advantages of the overhead trolley were recognized by 1885.

Frank Sprague developed an improved DC electric traction motor which used a compressed spring motor mount for isolation from vibrations on the car axle but yet solidly meshed with a drive gear on the axle. His design succeeded in Richmond, VA in 1887, and could manage an 8% grade. His company was acquired by Edison GE. Over 200 cities ordered systems by 1890.

The streetcar was faster than horses, typically 10 mph, and more economical. The need for stable personnel was avoided. The service life of a horse was only four years, and each ate his value in feed each year. Plus diseases could shut down service. Cable car technology was the only competitor, but it was more costly to build and less efficient due to need to pull heavy cable throughout the system. Many street railways were converted from horse to electric streetcars and extended with additional real estate development.

The adoption of streetcars opened a new era. Fast transportation allowed cities to expand–on average an additional six miles. The new neighborhoods had their own class structures. Middle class made the first wave of “escapes to the suburbs” in pursuit of the Victorian ideal of “closer to nature.” Factories could be further from downtown with working class families clustered around them. Department stores developed because people could still come downtown to work or to shop in stores with a wider array of merchandise.

With the these new developments came the bungalow. The bungalow was developed in California in about 1900 and gradually spread eastward. It was a rejection of the traditional Victorian concept of large homes with space for servants and instead featured modern progressive concepts: simple, informal, efficient, thrifty, economical. Multipurpose rooms were the norm rather than dedicated spaces like sewing rooms or parlors.

Streetcars also gave rise to trolley parks. Trolley parks were amusement parks located on the fringe of town. They were formed by streetcar companies to increase ridership at midday and on weekends when traffic was otherwise slack. Coney Island is perhaps the best known one, but Muncie had one by 1900. Rides were often based on streetcar mechanisms, e.g., the roller coaster. Streetcar companies had open Summer cars that provided a pleasant breezy ride to the trolley park.

Streetcar companies were soon unionized. Strikes were not uncommon. They also were susceptible to corruption and manipulation. Key citizens often controlled the companies and made fortunes in real estate by extending lines into new areas and then selling lots. They could be a corrupting influence on city governments. Cases of streetcar companies bribing city council members are well documented. Schedules could be disrupted or fares manipulated for political effect or financial gain.

The book also covers the intercity electric streetcar lines known as interurbans. Streetcar technology was adapted to run at high speeds. Lines were constructed connecting many cities. (They were standard gage; some modern rail lines were originally constructed as interurban lines.) Fast acceleration made their travel time about the same as steam railroads, but fares were about half that of passenger trains. A network of lines made it possible to travel from Chicago to Buffalo and in the Northeast and West. Muncie has 10 to 12 interurbans to Indianapolis per day with a travel time of about two hours. In Wisconsin, interurban service began in 1897.

Interurbans sold electricity to the farms and small communities along their routes. Interurbans also carried farm produce, milk, dairy, US mail, and small packages as from Montgomery Ward or Sears. Interurbans made it possible for many to shop at department stores or go to the movies.

The peak passenger year for US streetcars was 1922-23. Thereafter traffic declined as the automobile began to dominate. Similarly, interurbans declined after 1935 when the federal government forced them to give up their electric utility service. The utility business had better growth potential while interurban demand declined during the depression.

The same electric traction technology allowed the creation of subways, which were impractical with steam engines due to smoke and fumes. Subways are mentioned only briefly in the current volume. The technology also allowed for electric locomotives which worked well in tunnels such as those under the Hudson River in New York City. Ultimately this technology led to the development of modern diesel electric locomotives. Those aspects are omitted in the current volume.

Electrification also resulted in significant changes in manufacturing. Previously mills had been powered by water wheels or by steam engines. These were arranged to power a rotating overhead shaft which was then connected to individual machines by leather belts. This system resulted in multistory buildings located close to waterwheel sites. Electrification allowed the water wheel to turn dynamos so the power could be transmitted electrically. Each machine could now have its own electric motor–allowing greater flexibility. Henry Ford's assembly line was possible due to electrification–which made conveyor belts possible.

The age of industrial electrification ran from 1880 to 1930, but until 1900 or so, the thrust was lighting. Brighter lights made operating a factory 24 hours per day more efficient, but initially the old inline power systems for machines were retained. Facilities with power plants often installed dynamos to make their own electricity. In 1900, factories consumed half of the electric power produced, but electricity provided less than 5% of their power requirement. Electric motors were mostly adopted after 1900, resulting in major changes in manufacturing by World War I.

Samuel Insull is mentioned only in a cursory way in this volume. He was an Edison associate who is best known for his role in creating the electric utility industry. He was CEO of Commonwealth Edison in Chicago where he pioneered basic concepts. He believed in large efficient generating plants, diverse customers to balance load, and differential pricing to attract off peak customers. His ever larger generating plants meant that for years the price per kilowatt hour of electricity constantly fell as generation became more efficient and costs were spread over an ever growing customer base.

During his tenure, the issue of regulating utilities was addressed. Utilities are natural monopolies. Competition is impeded by limited space, and would be impossibly inefficient. In 1905, Insull participated in a private Commission on Public Ownership. The commission concluded that utility companies should use standardized bookkeeping and be subject to public oversight. The concept was adopted for regulation of utilities in all states except Delaware by 1921 (as an alternative to government ownership as favored in Europe).

Finally the book describes rural electrification, i.e., the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Rural Electrification Administration. As electric utilities spread across the country, they gradually brought electricity to most of the US. In rural areas service tended to be extended in the northeast (truck farming and dairy) and in the West (irrigation), areas with greater electrical demand. Executives believed that Midwestern and Southern farmers had too little need to support electric grids to serve them. As a result in the late 1920s, less than 10% of the 6.5MM farms in the US had electricity. When the Roosevelt administration proposed TVA and REA to serve rural areas, electric utilities vigorously opposed the new competition. TVA was begun in 1933; REA in 1935.

Nye's book does an excellent job answering many of the questions left unanswered in Jill Jonnes' “Empires of Light.” His book is loaded with factual details, but the effort to deal with the many social aspects sometimes bogs down in verbiage. A few questions remain unanswered. After Tesla's AC proved more successful than Edison's DC, how did 60 Hz and 120v become standards for residential use? Edison is well known to have had trouble insulating the wires for his system. Who developed the wire towers, magnet wire enamels, and insulating varnishes that made motors and generators possible (before the development of modern synthetic resins largely after 1920)? Lower fire insurance rates were mentioned, but how were building codes adapted to electrical requirements? How did Underwriters Laboratories and their standards come about? How were electrical plugs standardized? Who mass produced fractional horsepower electric motors to make them inexpensive enough for consumers?

Electrifying America is a welcome addition to the collection of technology history. References, index, photos.
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