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section heading icon     power and utilities networks

This page looks at electrification and power networks as a model for considering the impact of the web.

It covers -

Benchmarks for mergers and acquisitions are here.

section marker     introduction

In terms of well-being the invention of the electric kettle and toaster have probably had a greater economic and social impact than the internet. Power networks and applications (from toasters to web servers) -

  • are founded on state or private capital, with consequent disagreement about pricing and access (eg is affordable electricity, like information, a human right?)
  • may cross municipal, provincial and even national borders
  • may involve disputes about access (including eminent domain)
  • embody competing technical standards (eg the early conflict between alternating and direct current and contemporary national/regional variations on such matters as voltages, plugs and threaded versus bayonet light bulbs), often standards that are developed and maintained by nongovernment entities
  • are embedded in a body of law regarding network operator, manufacturer and user rights and liabilities
  • have been mythologised

in ways that offer insights of value for considering the net.

section marker     power

Thomas Hughes' Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society 1880-1930 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Uni Press 1983) is a superb study of perhaps the great revolution last century. There is a shorter account in Amy Friedlander's Power & Light; Electricity in the U.S. Energy Infrastructure, 1870-1940 (Reston: Corporation for National Research Initiatives 1996). Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World (New York: Random 2003) by Jill Jonnes is less analytical.

For those trying to understand the digital rhetoric we recommend David Nye's Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology (Cambridge: MIT Press 1992), Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies (Cambridge: MIT Press 1997) and American Technological Sublime (Cambridge: MIT Press 1996). It is complemented by Dark Light: Electricity & Anxiety From the Telegraph To The X-Ray (Orlando: Harcourt 2004) by Linda Simon, Andreas Killen's Berlin Electropolis: Shock, Nerves, and German Modernity (Berkeley: Uni of California Press 2006) and Charles Bazerman's The Languages of Edison's Light (Cambridge: MIT Press 1999).

For lighting see in particular Robert Friedel & Paul Israel's Edison's Electric Light: Biography of an Invention (New Brunswick: Rutgers Uni Press 1986), Wolfgang Schivelbusch' Disenchanted Night (Berkeley: Uni of California Press 1986), Brian Bowers' Lengthening the Day: A History of Lighting Technology (Oxford: Oxford Uni Press 1998) and Roger Ekirch's At Day's Close: Night in Times Past (New York: Norton 2005).

Jonathan Coopersmith's lucid The Electrication of Russia, 1880-1926 (Ithaca: Cornell Uni Press 1992), Timo Myllyntaus' Electrifying Finland: The Transfer of a New Technology into a Late Industrialising Economy (London: Macmillan 1991) and Ronald Tobey's Technology As Freedom: The New Deal & the Electrical Modernization of the American Home (Berkeley: Uni of California Press 1996) are points of reference.

Tobey offers a perspective on digital divides by noting that in 1932 only 10% of US farms had electricity (compared to 70% of urban households). There is a broader account in A History of Industrial Power in the United States, 1780-1930: The Transmission of Power (Cambridge: MIT Press 1991) by Louis Hunter & Lynwood Bryant.

For antecedents of the Toffler and Gilder digital delirium we recommend Leo Marx's neglected classic The Machine in the Garden: Technology & the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford Uni Press 1967), Thomas Hughes' American Genesis: A Century of Invention & Technological Enthusiasm (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Uni Press 1989), William Akin's Technocracy & the American Dream (Berkeley: Uni of California Press 1977) and Howard Segal's Technological Utopianism in American Culture (Chicago: Uni of Chicago Press 1985).

Ian Byatt's The British Electrical Industry: The Economic Returns to a New Technology (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1970) is suggestive, as is Bernard Beaudreau's Mass Production, the Stock Market Crash & the Great Depression: The Macroeconomics of Electrification (Westport: Greenwood 1996).

section marker     regulation

Richard Hirsh's intelligent Power Loss: The Origins of Deregulation & Restructuring in the American Electric Utility Industry (Cambridge: MIT Press 1999) and Technology & Transformation in the American Electric Utility Industry (New York: Cambridge Uni Press 1989) complement US telecommunication sector studies such as Peter Temin's The Fall of the Bell System (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 1988) highlighted earlier in this profile.

Charles David Jacobson's Ties That Bind: Economic & Political Dilemmas of Urban Utility Networks, 1800-1990 (Pittsburgh: Uni of Pittsburgh Press 2000) and Harold Platt's The Electric City: Energy & the Growth of the Chicago Area, 1880-1930 (Chicago: Uni of Chicago Press 1991) offer insightful comments about market dominance, infrastructure and regulatory mechanisms in considering cable television, gas, electricity and water systems in the US.

We have pointed to other studies of regulation and deregulation as part of the discussion of utilicoms elsewhere on this site.

section marker     politics

Lenin quipped that "communism is soviet power plus electrification". There has been surprisingly little exploration of the politics of electrification or energy supply.

For a broader perspective see Richard Samuels's The Business of the Japanese State: Energy Markets in Comparative and Historical Respective (Ithaca: Cornell Uni Press 1987), Aynsley Kellow's Transforming Power: The Politics of Electricity Planning (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 1996), The Politics of Power: Inside Australia's Electric Utilities (Carlton: Melbourne Uni Press 1988) by Stephen Rosenthal & Peter Russ, Electricity Economics: Regulation and Deregulation (New York: Wiley-IEEE 2002) edited by Geoffrey Rothwell & Tomás Gómez, Making Competition Work in Electricity (New York: Wiley 2002) by Sally Hunt, Sharon Beder's spirited Power Play: The Fight to Control the World's Electricity (New York: Norton 2003) and Lights Out (New York: Wiley 2007) by Jason Makansi.

section marker     people and places

Matthew Josephson's Edison: A Biography (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959) retains its bite but should be supplemented by Paul Israel's Edison: A Life of Invention (New York: Wiley 1998).

For Canada see in particular Keith Fleming's Power at Cost: Ontario Hydro and Rural Electrification, 1911-1958 (Montreal: McGill-Queen's Uni Press 1992) and Neil Freeman's The Politics of Power: Ontario Hydro and Its Government, 1906-1995 (Toronto: Uni of Toronto Press 1996). For the UK see Leslie Hannah's Electricity Before Nationalisation: A Study of the Development of the Electricity Supply Industry in Britain to 1948 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Uni Press 1979).

Australia's Snowy Mountains hydroelectric scheme - an abiding national myth - is profiled in Snowy: The Making of Modern Australia (Sydney: Hodder & Stoughton 1990) by Brad Collis.

For entrepreneur Samuel Insull see Forrest McDonald's Insull (Chicago: Uni of Chicago Press 1962), John Wasik's The Merchant of Power: Sam Insull, Thomas Edison, and the Creation of the Modern Metropolis (New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2006) and Platt's The Electric City. They are complemented by The Force of Energy: A Business History of the Detroit Edison Company (East Lansing: Michigan State Uni Press 1971) by Raymond Miller and Electrifying the Piedmont Carolinas: The Duke Power Company, 1904-1997 (Durham: Carolina Academic Press 2001) by Robert Durden.

section marker     imagination

[under development]

For the World's Fair see David Burg's Chicago's White City of 1893 (Lexington: Uni Press of Kentucky 1976)

The International Energy Agency's 2006 Light's Labour's Lost report, drawing on 'Seven Centuries of Energy Services Light: the. Price and Use of Light in the United Kingdom (1300-2000)' by Roger Fouquet & Peter Pearson, claimed that

When William Shakespeare wrote Love's Labour's Lost, he would have used light from tallow candles at a cost (today) of £12,000 for a measure of light (per million-lumen hours). The same amount of light from electric lamps now costs £2

section marker     law

[under development] 

For Old Sparky see in particular Craig Brandon's The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History (Jefferson: McFarland 1999) and Richard Moran's Executioner's Current: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the Invention of the Electric Chair (New York: Knopf 2002).

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version of June 2007
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