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Insull: The Rise and Fall of a Billionaire Utility Tycoon Paperback – December 1, 2004

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Insull: The Rise and Fall of a Billionaire Utility Tycoon + The Memoirs of Samuel Insull : An Autobiography
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Next to Thomas Edison, Samuel Insull is the name you should remember as the most important and perhaps the most notorious person in the utility business. He was the billionaire utility tycoon from Chicago whose gas and electric empire operating in over thirty states in 1932, causing a million investors to lose two to three billion dollars. Starting as Thomas Edison's private secretary in 1881, he was responsible for establishing centralized electric supply. He organized the Edison General Electric Company before the industrial giant of the same name, working out a model of nationwide distribution and promoting rural electrification. One of the most significant accomplishments was acquiring effective government regulation of public utilities. The author does not make judgments as to whether Insull was good or bad. He merely wants us to know the man for what he did.

From the Inside Flap

An astute businessman, he practiced "mass production" and "selling at the lowest possible cost" long before those ideas became popular. In addition, he successfully applied the concepts of load and diversity on a large scale -- factors on which all utility rates are based. On the financial side, his innovativeness in devising ways to market securities made possible gigantic modern corporations owned by anonymous millions and therefore owned by nobody.

Insull was instrumental in acquiring effective governmental regulation of public utilities. He pioneered welfare programs long before labor or even government became aware of their importance and encouraged the growth of labor unions.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Beard Books (December 1, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1587982439
  • ISBN-13: 978-1587982439
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 0.9 x 6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,103,799 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By breizhoneg@aol.com on February 27, 1998
Format: Unbound
While the topic may sound dry and uninteresting, in fact McDonald presents a fascinating tale of how the electric utility industry came to be the way it is today. Anyone seriously considering the current "restructuring" or "deregulation" of electric utilities should be familiar with this work. Clearly a "10" for anyone interested in understanding why we have massive power plants, "stranded costs" -- and a very hard time moving to a more competitive model. PMMarston
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful By E. Husman on August 1, 2009
Format: Paperback
Forrest McDonald's biography of Samuel Insull strikes me as an unreliable source of information. I can't put my finger on it exactly, but it is striking that all of Insull's enemies and competitors just happened to be either corrupt or incompetent. I suppose that's possible, but I think perhaps Mr. McDonald overlooked some of Insull's less stellar moments. McDonald appears to have been a very strong admirer of Insull, so I caution the casual reader to consider whether certain uncomfortable truths are glossed over or dropped from this history.

My interest in the book has to do with seeking out the origins of public utility regulation. I had once read that Insull, like AT&T's Vail, was a great advocate of natural monopoly theory and actively sought it. While McDonald mentions this a few times, he does not try to document or substantiate the claim. He notes that Insull's English upbringing left him regarding monopolies as benign, and his association with German Henry Villard left him believing in the benevolence of regulated utilities. However, it does become apparent from the narrative that the electric industry was not exactly the wild and wooly unregulated market one might suspect from reading other sources about the period.

Insull's empire was built on at least two other types of government regulation that pre-dated the Public Utility Holding Company Act (PUHCA). The first was the patent, and the second was existing public utility regulations. Insull started his career as a secretary for Thomas Edison, and eventually worked his way up to become an executive in the Edison General Electric Company (the forerunner of the modern GE).
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By David A. Budka on December 22, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Samuel Insull is considered either a villain or a progressive innovator depending on who one talks to. In Forrest McDonald's book we learn that Insull's greatest strengths, the willingness to borrow large amounts of money to develop new technologies and to promote economies of scale, proved also to be his greatest weaknesses. Starting out as a stenographer in England, Samuel Insull through business connections became Thomas Edison's financial manager. He was instrumental in the creation of the Edison General Electric Company, the predecessor to today's General Electric Company. From there he stepped into the utilities business by becoming the President of the Chicago Edison Company, and eventually turned it into the giant Commonwealth Edison Company.

Insull would go on to build and consolidate numerous gas, electric, and transit utilities across the eastern two-thirds of the United States. He became well known as being able to take moribund utilities and turn them into working properties. Most well known are the People's Gas Company of Chicago, and the Chicago, South Shore, and South Bend Railroad. He also had the ability of working with labor leaders such as John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers and Frank Farrington. However, his work to consolidate utilities often put him at odds with other utility magnates like William Brown McKinley and Clement Studebaker of the North American Light & Power Company and Cyrus S. Eaton of the United Light & Power Company. Eventually, Samuel Insull, thinking Eaton was looking to take over is utility empire, put his reputation and personal credit on the line to prevent Eaton's apparent efforts.

There are numerous books which would be good companions to this one: The World of Cyrus Eaton by Marcus Gleisser.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Leigh Hickcox on August 10, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Insull" gives me the answers to decades of wondering. My earlier reading about transportation history often referred to this man. But I didn't know about his earlier, admirable work as financial assistant to Thomas Edison -- long before the less happy reputation that sticks with Insull. There still is mystery aboiut what brought about his downfall, and his lingering reputation.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on February 27, 1998
Format: Unbound
While the topic may sound dry and uninteresting, in fact McDonald presents a fascinating tale of how the electric utility industry came to be the way it is today. Anyone seriously considering the current "restructuring" or "deregulation" of electric utilities should be familiar with this work. Clearly a "10" for anyone interested in understanding why we have massive power plants, "stranded costs" -- and a very hard time moving to a more competitive model. PMMarston
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