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Pursuing Power and Light: Technology and Physics from James Watt to Albert Einstein (Johns Hopkins Introductory Studies in the History of Science) [Paperback]

Bruce J. Hunt
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

March 5, 2010 0801893593 978-0801893599

In the nineteenth century, science and technology developed a close and continuing relationship. The most important advancements in physics—the science of energy and the theory of the electromagnetic field—were deeply rooted in the new technologies of the steam engine, the telegraph, and electric power and light. Bruce J. Hunt here explores how the leading technologies of the industrial age helped reshape modern physics.

This period marked a watershed in how human beings exerted power over the world around them. Sweeping changes in manufacturing, transportation, and communications transformed the economy, society, and daily life in ways never before imagined. At the same time, physical scientists made great strides in the study of energy, atoms, and electromagnetism. Hunt shows how technology informed science and vice versa, examining the interaction between steam technology and the formulation of the laws of thermodynamics, for example, and that between telegraphy and the rise of electrical science.

Hunt’s groundbreaking introduction to the history of physics points to the shift to atomic and quantum physics. It closes with a brief look at Albert Einstein’s work at the Swiss patent office and the part it played in his formulation of relativity theory. Hunt translates his often-demanding material into engaging and accessible language suitable for undergraduate students of the history of science and technology.

Frequently Bought Together

Pursuing Power and Light: Technology and Physics from James Watt to Albert Einstein (Johns Hopkins Introductory Studies in the History of Science) + Science and the Enlightenment (Cambridge Studies in the History of Science) + Evolutionary Writings: Including the Autobiographies (Oxford World's Classics)
Price for all three: $61.18

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Editorial Reviews


Highly recommended.


Pursuing Power and Light is the best and most up-to-date treatment, especially for undergraduates, of the key concepts and figures of 19th-century physics.

(Robert Friedel Physics Today)

Essential reading both for students in engineering and the sciences and for those in HPS departments... enjoyable and very interesting reading.

(Stathis Arapostathis Metascience)

Pursuing Power and Light is a bravura performance that should inform and inspire many an undergraduate and general reader.

(David Philip Miller British Journal of the History of Science)

Pursuing Power and Light is a bravura performance that should inform and inspire many an undergraduate and general reader.

(David Philip Miller British Journal for the History of Science)

Concise, technically lucid, and remarkably readable.

(Suman Seth Isis)

About the Author

Bruce J. Hunt is an associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and author of The Maxwellians.

Product Details

  • Series: Johns Hopkins Introductory Studies in the History of Science
  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press (March 5, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801893593
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801893599
  • Product Dimensions: 8.7 x 5.9 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #967,081 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Bruce J. Hunt teaches courses in the history of science and technology at the University of Texas at Austin. His is especially interested in the ways technologies affected the development of physics in the 19th century, and he is currently working on a book on how the cable telegraph industry shaped work in electrical science in Victorian Britain.

Customer Reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Historical detail the textbooks overlook June 16, 2011
I am a physicist, now retired after teaching university physics for thirty years. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Tales of the struggles and mis-steps that often precede the greatest theoretical advances are stories most often left out of our curricula. Some, like Maxwell's mechanical vortex ideas, were totally new to me. And with the success of today's satellite and wireless industries, we forget the history of the trans-oceanic cables, and how their needs influenced the development of basic science. Also, how the demand for electrical engineers fueled the growth of physics programs at US universities was interesting news to me.

As another reviewer has already noted, Hunt got the physics mostly right. However, I read the Kindle edition, and was disappointed with the quality of the translation from print. Apparently, the translator bot is programmed to remove hyphens from words split between lines. This had the unfortunate result of converting the Celsius and Fahrenheit temperatures for absolute zero from negative to positive values. There were many other defects in the translation that were merely annoying but quite apparent. It was an unfortunate decision to bypass editing of this version.

Nevertheless, I congratulate the author on a job well done.
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This is a very well written history of the development of steam power and the science of thermodynamics on the one hand, and electromagnetism and the associated electric industries on the other. The author also describes how they converged at the end of the century to provide the basis for 20th century physics and technology. The author tells this story without the use of mathematics, and only displays a few equations, which are (fortunately, see below) not essential to understand the basic physics. The author's point is to demonstrate how the development of technology spurred on physics, as physicists struggled to understand what the engineers and 'mechanics' had done, and also how the understanding that came out of physics enabled not only better machines but whole new technologies (e.g., radio waves). While this point has been made before, it is rare to see it discussed in books intended for non-physicists. I am a retired physicist and I was delighted to see this book. I was even more delighted when I got around to reading it. Anyone who is interested in the foundations of modern physics but does not have a mathematical background should enjoy this book.

Having said all that, I must admit to a hesitation about giving it 5 stars. I own the Kindle edition, and there are numerous typos. In the early part of the book, they tend to come in those few equations that are displayed, so they don't effect understanding. However, in the latter part of the book, most if not all words with double-f's (ff) have the 'ff' replaced with a question mark '?' (E.g., 'offer' becomes 'o?er'.) This makes me suspect that at least part of the book was converted into an eBook by scanning the print edition and running it through optical character recognition software that did not know how to parse 'ff'. This was very disconcerting and interfered with my enjoyment of the last couple of chapters. But the book is so well written that I couldn't bear to downgrade my rating.
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The author, an associate professor of history, explores the interaction between applied technology and scientific theory during the research and development of steam, electromagnetism, and electricity as sources of power and lighting. The author discusses how the successes and failures of applied technology often spurred scientific research to understand the scientific bases for the successes and failures of such technology, how scientific theory contributed to making improvements to some technological applications, and how competing scientific theories sometimes generated controversies that slowed scientific progress. The author does a very good job of showing how the research and development of steam, electromagnetism, and electricity as sources of power and lighting were slow, nonlinear, problematic, and contentious. The book ends with a chapter and an epilogue that show how advances in scientific research about physics during the 1800s identified problems and anomalies that contributed to the development of the theory of quantum mechanics. Overall, the author provides an informative, and occasionally fascinating, historical perspective on a period of significant scientific advances that laid the foundations for much of modern technology.

This history book is aimed at a technical audience, not casual readers. It would be helpful for readers to have some knowledge or familiarity with physics, engineering, or the history of science to better follow and understand the author's commentary and observations.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Read July 14, 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Most of what I knew about science and technology in the 19th century was retrospective. I was, for instance, in awe of Maxwell's equations but couldn't imagine where he got the idea for them. This book explains the bumpy road that leads to all great discoveries.

Hunt also provides unexpected insights on why the 19th century was relatively peaceful. Great Britain had a dominating position in steam technology and was very slow to share her secrets on the continent. From mid-century she also virtually controlled the information industry. All the great cable companies were British and she controlled the sale of gutta percha from the far east which was essential to insulate cables and other electrical equipment. It was Hertz who began the process of breaking this strategic information monopoly with his invention of radio waves in 1886 -- a technology that by the early years of the new century permitted long-range communication outside of the British-controlled cable system.
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