The electric vehicle of historian David Kirsch's title is an old technology that seems ever on the verge of making a comeback. In the late 1890s, the electric engine competed with steam- and gasoline-driven engines to become the standard for automobile manufacturers, and it remained competitive for nearly a decade until, in the early 1900s, the internal-combustion engine captured the market.
It did so for complex reasons, few of them, in Kirsch's account, having to do with purely technological issues. Enter the "burden of history," a fruitful notion that reminds us that deterministic ideas of why things are the way they are--for example, that the lead-acid battery held insufficient power to carry cars over long distances without recharging, thus ensuring the victory of the more easily replenished internal-combustion engine--are often only half-right, if that. Kirsch urges that those concerned with analyzing the wherefores of the past take into consideration multiple causes, and not always the most apparent ones. The automobile, he continues, is not simply a machine, but "a material embodiment of the dynamic interaction of consumers and producers, private and public institutions, existing and potential capabilities, and prevailing ideas about gender, health, and the environment." In short, the automobile is a system unto itself, and how it came to take its present form--unchanged in many respects for a hundred years--is a story that involves many episodes.
Kirsch's account of some of those episodes provides a solid case study for students of technological history, and for those who press for new means of transportation in the new century. --Gregory McNamee
From Library Journal
Kirsch (industrial ecology, UCLA) considers the relationship of technology, society, and environment to choice, policy, and outcome in the history of American transportation. This book is the first on electric cars to examine clearly why the gasoline engine continues to be the dominant propulsion device for automobiles, even as technological and environmental concerns have made electric cars a viable alternative. The author!s main argument is that technological superiority cannot be determined without social context, for the choice of gasoline, ultimately, lies in the hearts and minds of engineers, consumers, and drivers. Though electric cars were an early alternative to steam and gasoline-powered vehicles, the technology was never developed after the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine became the standard. Kirsch connects the choice of internal combustion over electricity to current debates over the social and environmental impact of the automobile, the introduction of hybrid-powered vehicles, and the continuing evolution of the American transportation system. An excellent book for academic libraries supporting public policy programs and for public libraries."Eric C. Shoaf, Brown Univ. Lib., Providence, RI
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.