re: nye's e-america...

From brian carroll <>
Date Sun, 8 Jul 2001 23:11:42 -0800

Date:         Thu, 12 Jan 1995 20:16:22 CST
Sender:       "Basic and applied design (Art and Architecture)"
Subject:      Electrifying America

_____Electrifying America_______________________________________David E Nye
_____Social Meanings of a New Technology,___1880-1940___________MIT_Press90
      Preface ------------------------->In reproaching "traditional history,"
      Acknowledgements                 |Paul Val'ery has cited "the conquest
  1.  Middletown Lights Up           1 |of the earth by electricity" as an
  2.  The Great White Way           29 |example of one of those "notable
  3.  Crosstown Transfer            85 |phenomena" which it neglects, despite
  4.  What Was Electricity?        138 |the fact that they have "more meaning
  5.  Flexible Factory             185 |and greater possibilities of shaping
  6.  A Clean, Well-Lighted Hearth 238 |our immediate future than all the
  7.  Rural Lines                  287 |political events combined.
  8.  The Electrifying Future      339 |
  9.  Conclusion                   381 |Marc Bloch, ~The~Historians~Craft^1
  A technology is not merely a system of machines with certain functions; it
  is a part of a social world. Electrification is not an implacable force
  moving through history, but a social process that varies from one time
  period to another and from one culture to another. In the United States
  electrification was not a "thing" that came from outside society and had an
  "impact"; rather, it was an internal development shaped by its social
  context. Put another way, each technology is an extension of human lives:
  someone makes it, someone owns it, some oppose it, many use it, and all
  interpret it. The electric streetcar, for example, provided transportation,
  but there was more to it than that. Street traction companies were led into
  the related business of advertising, real estate speculation, selling
  surplus electrical energy, running amusement parks, and hauling light
  freight. Americans used the trolley to transform the urban landscape,
  making possible an enlarged city, reaching far out into the countryside and
  integrating smaller hamlets into the urban market. Riding a trolley became
  a new kind of tourism, and it became a subject of painting and poetry. The
  popular acceptance of the trolley car also raised political issues. Who
  should own and control it? Should its workers unionize? Did the streetcar
  lead to urban concentration or diffusion, and which was desirable? Like
  every technology, the electric streetcar implied several businesses,
  opening new social agendas, and raised political questions. It was not a
  thing in isolation, but an open-ended set of problems and possibilities.
-It is therefore fundamentally mistaken to think of "the home" or "the
  factory" or "the city" as passive, solid objects that undergo an abstract
  transformation called "electrification." Rather, every institution is a
  terrain, a social space that incorporates electricity at a certain
  historical juncture as part of its ongoing development. Electrification is
  a series of choices based only partly on technical considerations, and its
  meaning must be looked for in the many contexts in which Americans decided
  how to use it. They chose, for example, not to live in cities with collect-
  ivized electrical services but rather in suburban homes with individual
  appliances. They preferred the automobile to the electric trolley, home
  washing machines to commercial laundries. Americans adopted electrical
  technologies in a wide range of social, political, economic, and aesthetic
  contexts, weaving them into the fabric of experience. The light bulb itself
  was not merely a substitute for gas lighting, but facilitated social
  transformations. Lighting engineers created a new experience of night space
  that many painters and photographers depicted, including new kinds of
  public spectacles at world's fairs and along the Great White Way. Like any
  innovation, the electric light only effected transformations as it was
  incorporated into the structures of public life.
-The title ~Electrifying~America suggests these transformations and can be
  read in two ways: as a social process taking place over a sixty-year period
  in the United States, or as "exciting, super-charged America." For
  "electrifying" was both a process and an attribute, and Americans
  understood the new technology in both ways. They regularly shifted from
  seeing electricity in terms of technical change to a metaphorical level
  where it meant novelty, exicitement, modernity, and heightened awareness.
  Anything electric was saturated with energy, and the nation came to admire
  "live wires," "human dynamos," and "electrifying performances." At the most
  abstract level, the intensifying use of energy represented the increasing
  national greatness of the United States. In daily experience, adopting
  electricity changed the appearance and multiplied the meanings of the
  landscapes of life, making possible the streetcar suburb, the department
  store, the amusement park, the assembly-line factory, the electrified home,
  the modernized farm, and the utopian extension of these all, the world's
-Because electrification penetrated everywhere, its social history has
  almost no limits, tranversing histories of the city, transportation, labor,
  the professions, industry, business, engineering, physics, women,
  agriculture, medicine, advertising, art, architecture, and more. Academic
  specialization almost forbids an overview of such an interdisciplinary
  topic, and most of the research to date has concerned the internal
  development of electrical power systems, emphasizing the sequence of
  inventions that made them possible and the entrepreneurs who built the
  industry.^2 In short, several generations after Val'ery reproached
  historians for ignoring "the conquest of the earth by electricity,"
  we still have no broad treatment of this subject. Yet as Bloch knew,
  Val'ery was quite wrong in thinking "that this phenomenon must of necessity
  elude the historian" because "there are no documents which refer to it
  specifically." Indeed, the documentary evidence is enourmous, and it
  reveals not the conquest of the earth by an abstract force but a complex
  pattern of human choices. This volume examines the process of electrifying
  America form the general public's point of view. It shifts attention away
  from inventors and captains of industry to ordinary people: consumers,
  workers, reformers, housewives, and farmers. The central subject becomes
  not genius, not profits, not machines, not scientific discovery, but the
  human experience of making electricity part of city, factory, home and
  farm. To start then, how did the typical American community incorporate
  electricity into its daily life?
^1 Marc Bloch, ~The~Historians~Craft. New York: Random House, 1953, p.66
^2 The magisterial summation of this approach is Thomas P. Hughes, ~Networks
    ~of~Power: ~Electrification~in~Western~Society, 1880-1930. Baltimore:
    John Hopkins University Press, 1983.

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