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

3.9 out of 5 stars 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)

"Nye undertakes the monumental, and previous uncompleted, task of examining the social transformations that a new source of energy initiated. The result is a highly sophisticated and innovative account which crosses over several disciplinary lines."

(Dwight W. hoover, Director, Center for Middletown Studies, Ball State University)

"David Nye has provided what has so often been lacking in the history of new technologies - a sustained and comprehensive analysis of electricity's social and cultural impact. From factory to household, from trolley line to exposition, and from rural hamlet to Great White Way, Nye explores both how people selectively employed electricity to change their lives and how they constructed and reconstructed its cultural 'meaning.' Through absorbing details and casr studies, Nye affords us an intimate view of the "public relations" and personal relevance of electricity as it was incorporated into the everyday life of individual families, of mushrooming cities, and of the entire nation."

(Rolan Marchand, Professor of History, University of California, Davis. Author of Advertising the American Dream)

"David Nye is pioneering a new kind of technological history by showing how social and cultural systems shape technological ones. This is a wide-ranging, provocative study."

(Rosalind Williams, Associate Professor, Humanities Dept., MIT)

"Nye tells a compelling story of how people react to a new technology when they see the potential for both personal and social transformation. As a Tennessee farmer said in 1930--'The greatest thing on earth is to have the love of God in your heart and the next greatest thing is to have electricity in your home.' This is a delight."

(G. Terry Sharrer, Curator of Agriculture, Smithsonian Institution)

"David Nye, in Electrifying America, continues to provide leadership in integrating material culture with the traditional focus of American Studies on the realm of symbolic meaning."

(David W. Nobble, Professor of American Studies and History, University of Minnesota)

About the Author

David E. Nye teaches American history at the University of Copenhagen. He has published books on Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, as well as Image Worlds, a study of photography and corporate identities at General Electric.


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Product Details

  • Series: MIT Press
  • Paperback: 495 pages
  • Publisher: The MIT Press; Reprint edition 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: #114,736 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Rosemary Thornton 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: 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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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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There are few examples of the introduction of a new physical principle that had more profound effects on human civilization than electricity. Fire is the only thing that would probably surpass it, but the historical record of that discovery doesn't exist. Nye documents the many ways in which electricity changed America, with a number of surprises. It is a bit long and redundant, but overall I enjoyed it very much. It is very useful to reflect on something that saturated every aspect of our lives, yet we take for granted. Another book that I just started reading on this topic is The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America by Ernest Freeberg. Now let's develop fusion, the next revolution!
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