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Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940 Reprint Edition

7 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0262640305
ISBN-10: 0262640309
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Editorial Reviews


David Nye casts his bright light on everything from assembly lines to washing machines, from the plummeting price of urban electricity to the usefulness of electric incubators in chicken farming...Mr. Nye succeeds not simply because he knows his technology, but also because be understands the complexity of American culture...[He] has the breadth of knowledge and the good sense to see the significance in paintings like Edward Hopper's 'Nighthawks'...and to weave such observations into the very armature of his argument that electricity transformed not only American life but the American self.

(John R. Stilgoe New York Times Book Review)

About the Author

David E. Nye is Professor of American Studies at the Danish Institute of Advanced Study at the University of Southern Denmark. He is the author of Technology Matters: Questions to Live With and When the Lights Went Out: A History of Blackouts in America, both published by the MIT Press, and other books.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 495 pages
  • Publisher: The MIT Press; Reprint edition (July 8, 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0262640309
  • ISBN-13: 978-0262640305
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #238,582 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

David E. Nye's publications focus on technology and American society. He was born in Boston but spent his childhood in rural Pennsylvania. He was educated at Amherst College and the University of Minnesota. He has taught in both the United States and Europe, and he has lectured in every western European country. Author or editor of 20 books, he has won grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Leverhulme Foundation, and national research councils in Denmark and Holland. He has appeared on NOVA, the BBC, and Danish television, and has been a visiting scholar at the universities of Cambridge, Leeds, Harvard, MIT, Warwick, Oviedo, and Notre Dame. In 2005 he received the Leonardo da Vinci Medal, the lifetime achievement award and highest honor of the Society for the History of Technology. His most recent book, America's Assembly Line, will appear with MIT Press in 2013.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Paul Eckler on March 31, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
"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.
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20 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Rosemary Thornton VINE VOICE on June 8, 2000
Format: Paperback
Did you know, in the early days of electricity, the power went off at 11:00 pm each night? Or that electricity was billed at a flat rate of $1 per day? Or that most homes had only one or two outlets and a light bulb hanging from a string?
This book is a compendium of both fascinating facts and substantial histories of the development of residential electrical usage in our country.
I love old houses and historical information, and perhaps because of that, I found this book to be a fascinating read. Some parts of it were a wee bit dry, where he delved into some of the more technical aspects of this modern utility, but the majority of the book was a treasure.
After reading this book, and gaining an better understanding of the history of electricity, I'd say, without hesitation, that introducing the modern convenience of electrical current into our homes may be the most significant discovery of the last 500 years.
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Electrifying America is one of the most interesting books I've ever read. Reading it is almost like traveling back to the time of gaslight and candles when homes had no appliances and electric streetcars allowed creation of the first suburbs.

The book is more about the impact of electricity on everyday life than about the great personalities of the influential innovators like Edison, Tesla, Insull and Ford, who are only given casual mention.

Electrifying America begins at the time of the great expositions, or Worlds Fairs, such as the Pan American, Trans Mississippi, Panama Pacific and the tremendously popular Columbian (Chicago 1892-3) where there were elaborate displays of lighting and exhibits of the latest electrical equipment. It also tells of the early public demonstarations of street lighting.

Being an engineer and a researcher of productivity, I especially appreciated the discussion of the enormous manpower savings made possible by electrifying factories. An example given was a glass jar manufacturing company that replaced manual glass blowers with machinery and used things like an overhead (bridge) crane to move heavy items across the factory. In addition to drastic labor savings total output increased several fold. Electric lighting greatly improved working conditions in factories and also greatly reduced fires, with large reductions in insurance premiums, often enough to pay for the lighting.

Another well described example is the Ford River Rouge plant, which was the world's largest factory, built for maximum efficiency and the first large scale center of mass production. Nye describes how electricity made completely new plant layouts possible and how electric motors revolutionized machine tools.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Bomojaz on October 10, 2005
Format: Paperback
This book is about how electricity transformed America. Nye explores how electricity changed the home (it was now cleaner and safer than gas), the factory, and transportation (it made the subway and inter-urban trolley-car systems possible). Americans embraced this new source of energy quickly and convincingly. The mantra, however, that electric appliances would free the housewife was not true: men did not take to the appliances as readily and (surprise!) women suddenly were doing chores (vacuuming) that men used to do (beat the rugs). There is a lot of detail in the book, but not much that is new or not obvious. For that reason it was somewhat dull.
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