September 16, 2012

Technology: Electrifying America

After the American Century

 A few months ago, MIT Press singled out my Electrifying America as one of 50 books to celebrate as part of an anniversary event.  I was asked to prepare a short reflection on the book, which appears below.

The late 1980s was a good time to reflect on and analyze electrification, a process that had begun in the 1880s and been completed in my childhood. When I took up the subject, electricity had become "natural" but it was not difficult to recover its recent novelty. I was also experienced enough, with three previous books (on Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and General Electric), to realize that this was a wonderful subject and to know how fortunate I was to start work with the encouragement of a contract from MIT Press.
I researched Electrifying America when there was still no email or Internet, although I proudly wrote on a new word processor (with no hard disk). Most documents had to be gathered in libraries and archives, which was less a hardship than a pleasure. Where could I better get a sense of the early electric light than at the Edison National Historic Site? I did research in Muncie Indiana (better known as Middletown) to understand how it had adopted electricity. Likewise, I studied the electricity-mad Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, where it had been held in 1901. Such experiences gave me an invaluable grounding in the material culture of my subject.

That grounding stretched back to my childhood. I often visited my grandparents’ New Hampshire farm, which, when I first was there, lacked electricity. I also glimpsed the pre-electric world among the Amish and Mennonites whom I encountered while growing up in central Pennsylvania. During summers in Boston, I delighted in streetcars, and pestered my father to take me for rides, demanding to know how the system worked. A mechanical engineer who had co-authored a book about steam-power plants, he explained to me elementary mechanics and electrical machinery. Decades later he was still teaching me when we discussed sections of Electrifying America in draft form. By then, I was also teaching him some social and cultural history. They are at the center of the book, which fuses my education in American Studies with an understanding of technical details and an immersion in specific places. It proved to be the longest and perhaps the best of the eight books I have written for MIT Press, though an author always likes to think the next book will be the best one. (My America's Assembly Line will appear with MIT Press in spring, 2013.)

Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology received a full-page review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review in September, 1991, and that December it was named a Times Notable Book for the year. It won the 1991 Abel Woolman Award from the Public Works History Association, and in 1993 it received the Dexter Prize from the Society for the History of Technology. It is still in print.