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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fine Read
I was born and raised in Schenectady, New York, at a time when the locals still proudly, if a bit ruefully, referred to it as "The City That Lights and Hauls the World" because it was home to both the sprawling General Electric Company and the then-diminishing American Locomotive Company. But I didn't realize until reading this superb book that I never really understood...
Published on August 7, 2009 by Thomas M. Sullivan

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3.0 out of 5 stars A Powerful Story
I must admit to some bias as I grew up in a General Electric family in Schenectady. That said, I got this book [1] because of a life-long interest and [2] I'm a weary fan of Maury Klein. While I thought I knew the history of steam engines, I came away with a lot of gaps filled by Klein's tour de force. A few photos would help show the difference between water power, those...
Published 8 months ago by Richard A. MacKinnon


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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fine Read, August 7, 2009
By 
Thomas M. Sullivan (Lake George, NY USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Power Makers: Steam, Electricity, and the Men Who Invented Modern America (Paperback)
I was born and raised in Schenectady, New York, at a time when the locals still proudly, if a bit ruefully, referred to it as "The City That Lights and Hauls the World" because it was home to both the sprawling General Electric Company and the then-diminishing American Locomotive Company. But I didn't realize until reading this superb book that I never really understood how GE came to evolve out of the earlier Edison enterprises nor how and why it became headquartered in my home town. Nor did I realize how most of the giants behind the "energizing" of America, men like Edison, Westinghouse, Tesla, and Insull ended their lives, with the exception of Edison, disassociated from their great innovations, disillusioned with their business undertakings, and in the case of Insull, the unheralded pioneer of electric power distribution, indicted.

I do now, thanks to this marvelously well-written survey of the history of steam and electricity in our country. I agree with the other reviewers that the technical discussions get a bit "thick" from time to time, and even perhaps fall somewhat short of how senior MIT and RPI engineering wonks would set them out, but I reminded myself as I read through them that this is not the story of the devices, but rather the story of the men behind them, and that story could hardly be better told. This distinction brought to mind Kate Colquhoun's delightful, "Taste: The Story of Britain Through Its Cooking:" the reader need not get hung up on the recipes described by the author; their significance lies in their time and place and what they reflected of their preparers and consumers.

So it is with "The Power Makers." Professor Klein tells the story of the great inventors and their innovations so seamlessly and authoritatively that I would rank him right up there with the great historians of my reading experience, Ferguson, Schama, Hibbert, Porter, Anderson, Farwell and, well, you get the idea.

Finally, have you ever interrupted a really pleasurable history read and thought to yourself, I wonder if the author enjoyed writing this as much as I am enjoying reading it? My guess is Klein certainly did and had some very good idea that he was producing not only the definitive popular history of the subject but a book that is nothing short of a total joy to read. Highly recommended.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars History Does Rhyme, June 11, 2008
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The value of this book shows most clearly in Chapter 13, Competition and Electrocution. An enterprising screenplay writer could develop a script that would rival, "There Will Be Blood." We see the clash in Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, capital punishment, a commodity speculator names Hyacinthe Secretan, an obscure engineer named Harold Brown, and all the forces of growth in modern society colliding in New York City at the turn of the 19th century. Reading that chapter made me think about how little things have changed in society over the past 100 years and that we're still living in the Modern World after all.

Professor Klein takes a detailed (and at times a painstakingly detailed) look at the people and ideas that led to the invention and distribution of energy and power in America from roughly 1880 through 1930. The first half of the book is a slow read. It traces the biography of key people (James Watt, for example) and ideas (the steam engine) in a fairly straightforward, linear narrative. It is a long setup, but the back half of the book pays it all off as Klein then begins to weave a broader narrative of social forces (politics, economics, journalism, and those great characters with American grit, ambition, and craziness) with these key people and ideas.

It's hard not to see this same kind of script playing out in America (and the rest of the world through globalization) with new techologies like computers. In many ways the world is not PostModern, but still in a Modern phase as we learn how to integrate new techologies into normal human society. It's just hilarious to read about politicians and journalists howling about capital punishment (yes), greed, science, and virtue from 1880. It's like reading the New York Times today. Just change the names and you've got the same kinds of challenges, problems, and questions.

A fascinating book that requires a little commitment through the early chapters.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars It's Tough Translating a Technical Subject into Simple Langauge, October 14, 2009
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This review is from: The Power Makers: Steam, Electricity, and the Men Who Invented Modern America (Paperback)
Book is very good, although the explanations of early alternating current pilots and preliminary designs are a jumble of technical accuracy and layman's language. Not much different from the experiences of a college freshman in a second semester physics class.

I also tripped over the use of expressions like "in the limelight", I struggling with whether that was intentional or not in describing the people who installed arc lighting in Manhattan.

These minor criticisms aside, it's a great book in bringing the personalities of the inventors into a dry technical subject, and also because the author provides excellent insight into the dramatic leaps in technology that took significant study to theorize, identify through experimentation, and define through physics and mathematics.
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10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good history with shaky technology writing, July 21, 2008
By 
Joel M. Kauffman (Berwyn, PA United States) - See all my reviews
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A historian of business and society, Professor Klein's has written well on these two topics, an inspiration for techies like me, bringing back the pride I felt in the 1950s in reading biographies of inventors and scientists, and building electromechanical gadgets. A background frame of reference is provided based on a very young man attending the US centennial exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, where a huge Corliss steam engine was the star, and powered many other machines. Electrical exhibits were little more than scientific curiosities. Later the same man attended the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. Here a hundred thousand light bulbs and hundreds of arc lights and dozens of machines were powered by electric generators or alternators, themselves powered by steam engines very much in the background. Finally the same man, quite old, attended the 1939 World's Fair in Queens, NYC. Now electricity was a given, and new appliances, radio, and even early TV as well as fluorescent lights were on display. The new star was the internal combustion engine. Cars had changed the landscape and were promoted as most desirable possessions for an unlimited future. Steam trains still ruled, but electric light rail, subway and elevated lines made densely populated cities livable.

Steam engines are shown be have been empirical creations of tinkers, basically. Newcomen, Watt, Evans, Fitch, Rumsey, Trevithick, Fulton and many others are described. Personalities, business tribulations and/or success, acceptance of inventions, and patent fights are all there. These aspects were very well done. Later the move to steam turbines for more thermal efficiency appears.

Early work on electricity that will remind you of grade school physics and chemistry courses comes next. Galvani, Volta, Ampere, Joule, Rumford, Carnot, Clausius, Faraday and others are well described. Then the applications guys -- Edison, Westinghouse, Tesla, Steinmetz, Thomson and dozens of others are portrayed well. Here, too, the battles over patents that consumed so much effort and time received proper attention. Formation of General Electric around 1892 from Thomson-Houston and several other companies, especially Edison Electric is described, with smaller Westinghouse as the only significant independent for generators, alternators, motors, power stations, lighting and all. The battle of the currents, direct (Edison) and alternating (Westinghouse), gets the attention it deserves, including Edison's provision of alternating current for the first executions by electricity, and his vicious coinage of the term "Westinghoused". The adoption of 60-hertz frequency for alternating current and the voltages we have known all our lives has a history also.

Finally the slow rise from about 1890 and sudden fall around 1930 of Samuel Insull, formerly an assistant to Edison, is shown. Here and elsewhere, the takeover by financial tycoons or bankers of companies already proven successful is described. Insull's little known contribution was working out how the electric utilities of today would operate to best advantage all around, as local monopolies under government regulation, allowing the economies of scale to be a benefit to all. Insull was among the first to realize that evenness of load was so important because, then as now, it is so hard to store huge amounts of electricity.

Prof. Klein's writing is excellent in style and readability. There is very extensive referencing and an index, 16 photos, and some simple circuit diagrams from about 1885. More would have been very welcome, especially in explaining how 3-phase alternating current works. He has carefully avoided any present day political views about power and its makers or detractors. He has pulled together a story with more threads than a Persian rug. So why not 5-stars?

While Prof. Klein realized that some description of steam engines and of all aspects of current electricity were needed to give the reader any understanding of what was accomplished, his efforts in this important area were less than perfect. The same with business terms. Some examples are given below. For a list of all 35, e-mail me at kauffman37@yahoo.com.

1. On p15: "The Newcomen engine first heated the water in the cylinder..." The photo shows that water was heated in a boiler, and that steam entered the cylinder. The expression: "...create the vacuum to lift the beam..." is an obsolete description long replaced by: "air pressure pushed the piston down, lifting the beam". The errors were repeated on p21.

2. On p23 and elsewhere the advantage of one of Watt's inventions for the steam engine, the condenser, is not well explained, nor the air pump used with it. Since it appears that steam engines for railroads did not have condensers, I do not understand why it was so important for stationary ones.

3. On p45 and elsewhere, the term "tube boiler" was used without clarity on whether it was a fire tube or water tube type, these being quite different.

4. On p60 the fire tube boiler was said to have become the standard, but other sources say that the water tube type became standard. On p67 Prof. Klein wrote that this happened by 1876.

5. Also on p60, the Westinghouse air brake was said to stop a train by use of compressed air. This is not a good explanation; springs stop the train when the compressed air is released. And p193 was no help either.

6. On p64, anthracite coal was said to be almost pure carbon. But my 1953-4 CRC Handbook has 83% as the highest carbon content for any coal, far from almost pure.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating! The drama of technology in modern times., April 16, 2012
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This is an absolutely fascinating book. I am an electrical engineer, working on Wind Turbines and always like to know the history of things. I've been advancing in this book slowly and don't want it to end. The story is well told, taking the reader through the journey, the people, places, times, and drama that shaped the items that surround us today. Although I would like to hear more about the technical parts of this History and development, the author did a good job in leaving that out, so the book doesn't completely isolate itself from the non-electrical reader. Although, for a non-electrical person, there are parts that are probably hard to follow.

One of the things I enjoy while reading this book are the explanations on how ideas and companies succeeded or failed, some for the brilliance of their ideas, or the marketing behind them, or great investment, or charisma of their leaders, or the relationships to their employees... I could not help but compare the stories to the companies I have worked for and make the analogies. Another amazing thing about this history is realizing how many times in the history of Power things changed completely within a couple of decades. Can anyone imagine that in 50 years Power will be all made from Renewables? Doesn't seem likely. But judging by History, paradigms have changed so many times: boats to steam trains, steam trains to diesel, trains to cars, gas to electricity, and on and on...

This is a great book. I actually bought several copies and I give them to friends I meet along the way, people passionate about Power, business, innovation and most of all, the story of human kind in modern times.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Missed Opportunity, April 27, 2011
The author missed a major opportunity to educate his readers about tools used to understand AC and DC. In this 455 page book he devoted a few sentences to Carl Steinmetz, arguably the most important scientist involved in developing the electrical distribution system throughout the world.

Steinmetz designed the mathematical tools (like vectors representing the phase relationships between AC signals) used at entry level electronics classes today. Most people could visualize this from just a couple of pages of drawings and graphs.

Videos would be an even more effective way to both inform and entertain viewers. An excellent example of this is the video (and book) titled E=MC2, by David Bodanis.

Many people have heard about the competition between Thomas Edison (promoting DC power distribution) and George Westinghouse (promoting AC). Before reading this book I was not aware of the third major contender, named Thompson-Houston. Maury Klein did an excellent job of describing the competition between these three companies.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Worth your time, February 13, 2011
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This review is from: The Power Makers: Steam, Electricity, and the Men Who Invented Modern America (Paperback)
The men in this book made everything possible that we take for granted: lightbulbs, horseless engines,etc. They also produced some unintended results like night shifts, sleep deprivation, and the general abuse of our circadian rhythms. Still, this is fascinating read that is well worth your time.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Provides a "Heritage," but Misses a Valuable Point, August 5, 2012
By 
Gary Dameron (Short Gap, WV USA) - See all my reviews
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As an engineer, I found this book hard to put down. Having spent years working and teaching in the engineering field--including power engineering--I loved finding so many great stories of my "ancestors" in one place, all in context. Wish I had this book for a resource when I taught power engineering at the Air Force Academy.

For all his appreciation of the importance of the markets in the development of power technology, I was sorry to see the author missed a very important point--the advantage of free markets, not "guided" or "partnered" with government. For example, of four railroads built to cross North America, only one (Great Northern) was profitable AND un subsidized by government. As far as the development of steam powered shipping, Robert Fulton sought special consideration from government and was a financial flop, while Cornelius Vanderbilt relied on capitalism and succeeded. This lesson needs to be learned as we find Big Brother trying to steer our nation's decisions on how we will power our homes and businesses. (I recommend Burton Folsom's "Myth of the Robber Barons" if you're interested.)The Myth of the Robber Barons: A New Look at the Rise of Big Business in America

Some of the technical explanations were a little off, but anyone who knows the technology can get past it, and it won't really matter to the non-technical reader.

A great book, I'm sure I will read again.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Leaving aside the idiot who didn't read the book but gave it 3 stars anyway..., April 25, 2014
By 
Jeff (Northern California) - See all my reviews
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...it's pretty clear that everyone else who read it loved it.

They should. This book is a fine and all too rare example of a historian writing about science who has a firm grasp of science. As a result, we don't just know that Edison was a marvel or that it took Maxwell to explain fully Faraday's insights; we know why.

Klein is a great writer, a skillful synthesizer, and an insightful historian. He could have written a fine book about just electric power, but he realized he needed to go back and capture the great innovators in steam as well. It made the book over 400 pages long, but I was sad when it ended and could have easily read another 200 pages or so.

You have no appreciation of how quickly electricity burst onto the American scene, or what had to happen in order to make it happen. Although Klein does not use the phrase, it really was an unbroken chain of miracles which transformed completely the world in which we live today. The story is far more interesting than you might imagine. Let Klein be your tour guide on this fascinating journey.

Highly, highly recommended!
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5.0 out of 5 stars Well researched history of steam and electricity development in the US and world., March 14, 2014
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I have interest in Edison and Tesla and the battle of the currents, and give presentations on the subject. This well-written book chronicles the development of steam power, batteries, etc. which were necessary for the electrical revolution. Also covered was the role of financers in the marketing of inventions. I was able to buy a used copy on Amazon -- actually a de-commissioned library book in great shape -- for a very good price.
I put little "sticky note" tabs in books when I think there is a interesting fact that I can use in my presentations. I had many of these tabs in the pages of the book by the time I finished it.
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The Power Makers: Steam, Electricity, and the Men Who Invented Modern America
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