Electrifying America

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David E. Nye. Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990, 470 pages.) ISBN 0262640309


David Nye writes that, “electricity was an internal development shaped by its social context.” (p.ix) As he claims, the electrification of America, promoted new opportunities and contexts by which to judge and harness it. Simply, electricity was adopted, “in a wide range of social, political, economic, and aesthetic contexts.” (p. x) Using the Lynd study city of Muncie, Indiana, Nye shows the ways in which electricity not only modernized factories and manufacturing, it also maps the civic pride that came with the advent of electricity. In 1931, Muncie had 114 miles of lights and 859 miles of wire, however, the countryside was not electrified. (p. 23) The binaries of light versus dark and urban versus rural form a consistent theme throughout the work. An early chapter, “The Great White Way” shows the ways in which electricity was also a novelty. This is well documented in the various World’s Fairs that showcased electricity, in electric signage, and in the great white ways around the country. This new powered world, “served as symbolic validation of the industrial order.” (p.73) The new industrial order was symbolized by the electric streetcar which impacted the growth of the suburbs and was rapidly adopted after its introduction. Amusements parks and recreational facilities were one way that streetcars helped change American leisure activities. Nye reveals his social history skills showing not only the development of the power house but the development of the traction and power companies within their political and social contexts, such as the debate between public and private ownership of utilities.

For example, Nye devotes an entire chapter to examining perceptions of electricity in the vernacular explicating what electricity ‘was’ especially in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His look at metaphors, such as ‘turned on”, ‘short circuit’,’ burned out’,’ human dynamo’, and the appearance of the comic strip light bulb to show a bright idea. (p. 155) The electric industry was inextricably linked to ideas of social and economic progress and even utopian ideals. The factory was one place where electrification was both praised and feared speaking to the possible automation of workplaces and fears of displacements, such arguments were often outweighed by increased productivity and output. One important change that factory electrification allowed was that machinery could be, “arranged according to the sequence of work needed to create the product.” (p. 224) This was a much more significant contribution to the assembly line than the moving belt. Factory changes also moved to the home and created things like the home economics movement.

Electricity also helped redesign homes and increased costs, and the old Victorian plans became outmoded as lights allowed the use of rooms after dark and in new ways and, “blurred traditional sexual roles.” (p. 278) The kitchen was the one place where toasters, vacuums, dishwashers, refrigerators and other appliances became markers of the modern home. This was another important part of the emerging mass market for new items like Christmas trees and electric trains. By the 1930’s, “electricity was still a new technology that suggested radical change.” (p. 339) Interestingly, Nye reminds us that consumers had to learn how to handle electricity and not get shocked or burned. In addition to urban or suburban home owners a wide variety of products were introduced for farmers. Rural electricity brought power to many schools for the first time in part to the TVA and REA. Radio was another key player in resolving the rural isolation of farms, in fact, there were also critics protesting the annexation of land or the control of rural electric cooperatives. Regardless of criticisms, electricity ultimately became an almost inescapable fact of experience for most Americans.

Nye points out in his last chapters that corporations sponsored electric shows and fairs designed to spread a vision of the future that included electricity as social progress. Things like street lights were designed by General Electric as part of a campaign to sell, modernize and beautify the cityscape. Nye also details how electricity impacted the arts, especially the theater, where sound and lighting design became part of the normal expectations of playgoers and moviegoers. One important note was that electricity consolidated the power in the hands of large companies like General Electric and Westinghouse. Nye returns to his thesis, “people do not use electricity. Rather, the self and the electrified world have intertwined.” (p. 390) For Nye, this story is one that is cautiously triumphant and uniquely American and the legacy is one that we live with every day.

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