Nye, David E. - Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940

Notes - Garnet Hertz
Updated 02 June 2006

General Thoughts

"Electrifying America" has no notes written on it yet.


[1] {electricity, 1885, Middletown, Muncie, Indiana, USA, Edison, domestic, civil, magnet, magnetism, nerve, heat, power, light, sex, health} Electricity was the sign of Edison's genius, the wonder of the age, the hallmark of progress. It was a mysterious power Americans had long connected to magnetism, the nervous system, heat, power, lightning, sex, health, and light. [Muncie (AKA "Middletown") Indiana had electricity installed in town in 1885.]

[1-2] {artificial intelligence, intelligence, electricity, electric intelligence, brain, mind, nerve, network, new media, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hawthorne} One of Nathaniel Hawthorne's characters exclaimed, "Then there is electricity, the demon, the angel, the mighty physical power, the all-pervading intelligence!" He went on: "Is it a face -- or have I dreamt it -- that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibtating thousands of miles in a breathless point in time? Rather, the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence! Or, shall we say, it is itself a thought, nothing but thought, and no longer the substance which we deemed it!"

[3] {new media, shock, electric light, public, spectacle, light, awe, supernatural, crowd, architecture} "Ringing of the Court House bell announced the exhibition. The city presented a gloomy uninviting appearance. Suddenly from the towering dome of the Court House burst forth a flood of electric light which, under ordinary circumstances would have caused a shout of rejoicing from the thousands who had been crowding and jostling each other in the deep darkness of the evening. No shout, however, or token of joy disturbed the deep silence which suddenly enveloped the onlookers. People stood overwhelmed with awe, as if in the presence of the supernatural. The strange weird light exceeded in power only by the sun, rendered the square as light as midday.... Men tell on their knees, groans were uttered at the sight, and many were dumb with amazement."

[3] {new media, expectations, agriculture, electric light} Some speculated that lighting would transform the growing season, and "farmers within a radius of five miles were led to believe that they would have corn large enough to harvest with saws."

[16] {Muncie, Middletown, Indiana, USA, electricity, electrification, change, day, night} Again Muncie was a microcosm of the United States, as national home electrification soared from 10 percent in 1910 to 70 percent in 1930. As in Muncie, most urban homes had electricity, but few farms did. Electric service was not continuous, but ran from 5:00 A.M. until 11:00 P.M....

[18] {electrification, electricity, civic, civil, pride, urban} Electrification in general was translated into civic pride.

[19] {electricity, appliances, appliance, domestic, sales, kitchen, light bulb} Reichart [a Muncie inventor who made an electric cooker] sometimes would "go into a home to demonstrate a cooker and find the only source of electricity was a single drop cord in the middle of the kitchen with a light bulb in it. In order to plug in the cooker he had to unscrew the bulb and often remarked that one of his biggest problems was women complaining they had to turn off the light in order to operate their cooker."

[20] {radio, 1920s, USA, consumer, military, communication, telecommunication, audience, mass, amateur, DIY, new media, Muncie, Indiana} One new device, the radio, was universally adopted. Across the United States commercial radio began suddenly in the early 1920s as a consumer-driven phenomenon. RCA, Westinghouse, and General Electric had developed radio as a means of point-to-point communication for use by the armed forces and had not imagined broadcast stations reaching a mass audience. Stations emerged rather accidentally as skilled amateurs built their own equipment and tried sending out a short program or two. [Continues with a description of early DIY radio format.]

[22] {radio, 1920s, USA, communication, telecommunication, adoption, growth, change} After a scant ten years [in the 1920s] radio was a commonplace.

[22] {electric light, electricity, 1934, Depression, Muncie, Indiana, Middletown, heating, toilet, indoor toilets, water, running water, telephone} In short, the electric light had become a necessity before central heating, indoor toilets, hot running water, or the telephone.

[28] {electricity, electrification, Muncie, Middletown, Indiana, USA, street, commercial lighting, 1880s, business, 1888, factories, factory, 1890s, mid-1890s, 1895, domestic, domestic business, 1910, farm, agriculture, 1935} Thus electrification did not emerge everywhere at the same time, in Muncie or around the country. Utilities found that their technical and financial options pointed to street and commercial lighting in the 1880s, to electrical traction businesses after 1888, to factories after the middle 1890s, to domestic business after 1910, and to farms only after 1935.

[29] {spectacle, electric light, electricity, safety, advertising, fair, theater, public, signs, 1885, 1915, 1885-1915} Certainly public lighting made the city safer, more recognizable, and easier to negotiate. But such a functionalist approach cannot begin to explain why electric lighting had its origins in the theater or why spectacular lighting emerged as a central cultural practice in the United States between 1885 and 1915, when promoters and public alike demanded ever-greater public displays. America's use far exceeded necessity, employing light as a form of symbolic expression in world's fairs, theaters, public events, and electrical advertising signs.

[29-30] {opera, Paris, France, 1849, special effects, electric light, arc, arc light, arc lamp, sunrise, luminous fountain, electric fountain, 1855, Meyerbeer, Duboscq, spotlight, rainbow, lightning} As early as 1849 the Paris opera used an electric arc lamp to create a sunrise in Meyerbeer's La Prophéte. And because such special effects could be immediately translated into box office success, managers were willing to spend considerable sums for "impractical" lighting -- or lights that cost a good deal and lasted only a short time. Already in 1855 the Paris opera employed an electrical expert, L. J. Duboscq, who designed spotlights, rainbows, lightning, and "luminous fountains."

[31] {Edison, economy, network, system, cost, expense, distribution, electric light, incandescent light} ...Edison carefully modeled his system [of incandescent electric light] on the economies of gas distribution, ensuring that his light was no more expensive...

[32] {electric, light, electric light, incandescent light, landscape, civil, city} ...the electric landscape sprang up in patches...

[33] {world fairs, fair, exposition, Crystal Palace Exposition, 1851, 1876, Philadelphia, Centennial Exposition, 1915, Panama Pacific Exposition, 1933, 1939, Chicago, Dallas, Cleveland, New York, 1915, San Francisco, 1901, Buffalo, 1904, St. Louis, utopia, new technology, new, USA, Depression, corporation, progress} While isolated illuminations only dotted the landscape, visions of a fully electrified world emerged at world's fairs and expositions. Since the Crystal Palace Expostion of 1851, fair had served as focal points for new technologies, and they offered the most effective way to reach a large public. The first great period of American world's fairs lasted forty years, beginning with the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and lasting until the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition. From then until the Great Depression large fairs were less common, followed by a second bust of activity between 1933 and 1939 when Chicago, Dallas, Cleveland, New York, and San Francisco all held expostions... The spread fo electrification across the United States closely coincided with teh first great periods of fairs, and electrical corporations were deeply involved both as exhibitors and as advisors to the planners of the four largest fairs of the period, at Chicago (1894), Buffalo (1901), St. Louis (1904), and San Francisco (1915).

[33] {world fairs, fair, USA, past, present, future, utopia, politics, strike, labor, industrialization, utopia, immigration, order, disorder, Europe, change, progress} As a whole each fair offered a coherent set of symbols that lined past, present, and future, providing a vision of order during a convulsive period charachterized by political corruption, violent strikes, rapid industrialization, and enormous immigration from Southern Europe.

[33] {anthropology, world fairs, fair, Burton Benedict, Benedict, utopia, culture, wall} The anthropologist of world's fiar, Burton Benedict, has noted that they are held on special grounds that are walled off and thereby made into an ideal space unlike the surrounding culture.

[34] {world fairs, fair, public, mass, spectacle, exposition, Chicago, Buffalo, St. Louis, USA} Fifty-five million people passed through the turnstiles of the three great exhibitions at Chicago, Buffalo, and St. Louis in a single decade. Even allowing for repeat visitors, this figure suggests that one-third of the population of the United States saw the electrical displays there.

[35] {world fairs, fair, public, mass, spectacle, exposition, electricity, electrification, progress, change, evolution, science, presige} Every fair attempted to outdo all previous efforts by escalating both the scale and the completeness of displays... Spectacular lighting was dramatic, nonutilitarian, abstract, and universalizing... Electrical displays also embodied the latest in science, lending the exposition its prestige by association... Electrification was placed quite consciously a thte apex of an evolutionary framework.

[38] {electric fountain, electrical fountain, spectacle, electric light, electricity, world fairs, fair, exposition, architecture} Amonth the other impressive sights were two electrical fountains...

[40] {Tower of Light, Edision, Columbian Exposition, 1894} [Photograph of Tower of Light in the Electricity Building, Columbian Exposition, 1894.]

[41] {progress, telephone, electric light, electricity, new, present, past, science, nature} The telephone and the electric light signaled teh triumph of science over nature, and represented the superiority of the present over the past.

[42] {amusement rides, amusement, entertainment}

[47] {future, utopia, world fairs, fair, universe, harmony, running water, late 19th century, immigration} World fairs modeled an idealized future, projecting a man-made universe where every object was in harmonious relationship with an overarching theme... Their ideal was a horizontal monumentality, and their object was to expose the ugliness of late nineteenth-century American cities, with their chaotic traffic, irregular lighting, and immigrants crowded into tenements that often had no running water and little fresh air.

[49] {electric signs, advertising, signs, USA, London, England, Edinburg, Scotland, controversy} By comparison [to London, England and Edinburg, Scotland], there was far less resistnce to electric signs in the United States...

[52] {Roman chariot race, chariot race, Elwood Rice, Rice, horses, race, electric signs, advertising, signs, spectacle, mass, New York, New York City, Broadway, 1910, tourism, animation, urban} By 1910 more than twenty blocks on Broadway were covered with electric advertisements, including one that many tourists felt to be the most interesting sight in New York -- an illuminated Roman chariot race. Designed by Elwood Rice and erected in ninety days on top of the Hotel Normandie at Thirty-eighth Street and Broadway, it was 72 feet high and 90 feet wide. It created the illusion of galloping horses, straining drivers, furiously spinning chariots' wheels and snapping whips. Movement was also suggested by the changing shape of the track and alternation of the stadium walls in the background, giving viewers an illusion something like that provided by a motion picture camera that follows a race. The Strand Magazine reported, "It is more perfect and natural in its movement than the finest colored cinematograph picture," a nearly perfect illusion.[60] The "race" lasted a full thirty seconds, followed by thirty seconds of darkness before the next "performance." Few spectators were content to watch the race only once. When the sign was first turned on, crowds halted traffic, and for weeks a special squad of police was detailed to handle them. Seen by millions of people a year, the seven-story-high sign required twenty thousand light bulbs.[61]

[53] {electric signs, electric advertising signs, advertising, signs, large, custom} The largest electric advertising signs were one-of-a-kind items, labor-intensive products created by small companies or by specialists.

[58-59] {Niagra Falls, light, electric light, nature, electricity}

[59] {Leo Marx, sublime, technological sublime, observer, grandeur, mind, machine, conquest, God} In the aesthetic theory of the sublime such an object of grandeur was thought to deepen and strengthen the mind of the observer. In nineteenth-century America certain machines began to receive the same kind of attention. Leo Marx has termed this response to displays of new railroads and steamboats as the "technological sublime," in which "the awe and reverance once reserved for teh Deity and later bestowed upon the visible landscape is directed toward technology, or rather the technological conquest of matter."[76]

[66] {utopia, expectations, WWI}

[68] {aerograph projector, sky, electric light, 1927} [Illustration of 36-inch aerograph projector, 1927.]

[76] {painting, art, electric light, city, cityscape}

[89] {streetcar, railway, horses, transportation}

[93] {streetcar, railway, suburb, urban, suburban, city, transportation}

[97] {streetcar, railway, politics}

[114] {streetcar, gender, women, entrepraneur, urban, city, transportation, commerce, structure, tradition, change, retail} As entrepraneurs used the streetcar to break down the traditional structures of the city, to concentrate commerce in the center, and to transform retailing, women found their roles transformed as well.

[115] {subway, streetcar, underground, 1868, 1880s, New York}

[115] {subway, streetcar, underground, public, first, 1896, Budapest, Tukey}

[122] {ferris wheel, midway, railway, railroad, amusement}

[122] {amusement park, midway, railway, railroad, amusement, 1901} By 1901 one half of all street railways operated one or more amusement parks.

[128] {kinetoscope, Coney Island, penny arcade, 1905, erotica} The kinetoscopes of the penny arcade gave suggestive glimpses of the female anatomy...

[129] {amusement park, amusement, social order, social, order, technology, pleasure, invert, separation, class, ethnicity} ...the amusement park temporarily overturned and rewrote the social order. It inverted central values of American society -- thrift, sobriety, restraint, order, and work -- and exploited technology for pleasure. It temporarily overcame the separation between social classes, ethnic tensions, the difference between country and city, and the segmentation of the city itself into suburbs.

[130] {social control, control, amusement parks, crowd, crowd control, mass, 1909, statistics} ...amusement park operators developed now standard physical devices of crowd control.

[132] {streetcar, roller coaster, amusement parks, amusement, transportation} By transforming the streetcar into a roller coaster, the racing dips parodied and exaggerated a familiar form of transportation.

[134] {canal, ship, 1840s} [There was a canal-building boom in America in the 1840s.]

[134] {streetcar, peak, 1922, 1923} ...[streetcar] ridership peaked in 1922-23...

[134] {streetcar, death, demise, decline} They [streetcar companies] were ill-prepared for the multiple threats of buses, trucks and automobiles...

[135] {innovation during decline, streetcar, death, demise, decline, innovation, technological innovation} Nor was the decline of streetcards due to technological stagnation. On the contrary, the manufactuers of the traction systems continued to innovate, as the market for their products declined.

[136] {streetcar, death, demise, decline, 1931, Depression, Muncie, Indiana, USA} In Muncie, streetcars disappeared from the streets in 1931; the interbauns lasted another decade because they had the advantage of selling electricity and carrying freight. But most were gone by the end of the Depression.

[143] {apocalypse, technological apocalypse, energy, Henry Adams, Adams, Kelvin} Along with many intellectuals and scientists such as the respected Lord Kelvin, Adams saw the universe as a vast machine whose fixed supply of energy would eventually dissipate according to the law of entropy. It seemed probable that the ultimate result of exploiting new energy systems would be the apocalyptic end of history itself.[9]

[145] {war, battle, Britian, Sudan, Arab, electric light, electricity} ...British troops in the Sudan used electric lights to terrify and rout Arab troops when they made a night attack.

[145] {police, control, public, social, social control, police, business} Businessmen, property owners, and police also found that electricity was useful for social control.

[145] {electrocution, death, death penalty, murder, animals, 1888, 1890, Edison, AC, alternating current, crime} Edison warned of the dangers of alternating current, which he felt should not be allowed in the home, although he elsewhere suggested it could be used to execute criminals. In part as a result of public demonstrations that he arranged with test animals, in 1888 New York state changed the death penalty from hanging to electrocution, and two years later Auburn State Prison used the first electric chair to execute a convicted murderer. [For more information on performance, electricity and the body, see Leonardo article by Arthur Elsenaar and Remko Scha entitled "Electric Body Manipulation as Performance Art: A Historical Perspective," published in Leonardo Music Journal 12.]

[145] {skeuomorph, fear, radical, familiar, old, new, appliances, design, tradition, advertising} Electrical corporations tried to minimize such fears [of destruction, electrocution, and subjection] through the styling of products, so that the earliest appliances often appeared to be not radically new but rather familiar, even visually identical with the nonelectric competition. Many early electric light fixtures were designed to look like crystal chandeliers, candles, or gas jets. Electric coffee pots often looked like parts of a typical Victorian silver table service. The same tendency to emphasize traditional design recurred in the earliest electrical advertising. [For more on the concept of skeuomorph, see Nick Gessler's "Skeuomorphs and Cultural Algorithms".]

[147] {Edison, utopia, press, domestic, gender, men, women, sleep, communicate, dead, progress, prediction, expectation, electricity, electrification, communication with the dead} ...Edison expressed utopian ideas about its uses that were characteristic of the popular press. He predicted that electrification of the home would eliminate the distinction between night and day and speed up women's mantal development, making them the intellectual equals of men. Constant light might lead to the elimination of sleep. In later years he even hinted that he was experimenting with electrical ways to communicate with the dead.

[147-148] {electric clothing, wearable, electricity, clothing, apparel, necktie, electric necktie, Electric Light for the Necktie, Ever Ready Electric Walking Cane, cane} [Includes diagram of "Electric Light for the Necktie".]

[149] {utopia, future, literature, electricity, metal, lightweight metal, train, high-speed train, Roemer, Kenneth M. Roemer} Kenneth M. Roemer found in his study of utopian writings during these years that electricity was one of the three most commonly mentioned scientific marvels of the future (the others: very lightweight metals and high-speed trains).[22]

[150] {utopia, progress, progressivism, revolution, technology} This utopianism might be regarded as a proto-revolutionary attitude toward technology, but it is better understood as an extension of progressivism. The average citizen had a slender practical understanding of electricity, and grasped it only in the general sense as a mysterious new energy source that would make everything better... Electricity would permanently liberate society from darkness.

[153-154] {electrical medicine, medicine, health, electricity, neurasthenia, neuralgia, Edison's Polyform, 1897, Dr. Cram's Fluid Lightning, 1901, electric belt, electric bath} [Electric belt illustration.]

[155] {prestige of new media, new media, prestige, new, new technology, medicine, wearable, vogue, cool} The popular faith in electrical medicine, like the vogue in electrical items of dress, was a sign of the prestige of the new technology.

[159] {Carolyn Marvin, Marvin}

[161] {electrical utopia, utopia, God, electrician, engineer, Jovians, unity, humankind, Elbert Hubbard, Austin, Texas, 1899} "The idea of electricity binding the world together in a body of brotherhood is something we did not look for a few years ago. Electricity occupies the twilight zone between the world of spirit and the world of matter. Electricians are all proud of their business. They should be. God is the Great Electrician." [Elbert Hubbard, Jovian society welcome address.]

[163] {electric stimulation, growth, children, Arrhenius, Nobel Prize}

[163] {Galvani, Luigi Galvani}

[163] {1745, Leyden jar} [Leyden jar invented in 1745.]

[163] {brain, electricity, electric, 1875, electrocardiogram, ECG, EKG, 1878, medicine} The electrical activity fo the brain was established as early as 1875 and the first primitive electrocardiogram was made in 1878.[55]

[163] {electric medicine, body, electrodes, tongue, vagina, anus, urethra, ear, tonsils, hair, nose} Electrodes were sold for attachment to the tongue, vagina, anus, urethra, ear, tonsils, hair, or nose, and doctors claimed to generate electricity in many forms: direct, "faradic," static, alternating, magnetic, thermal, and more.

[165] {X-ray, Roentgen ray, 1895}

[338] {1930s, electricity, new technology, change, radical} In the 1930s electricity was still a new technology that suggested radical change.

[342] {1930s, distopia, robot, pollution, living dead, dead, science fiction, human} The science fiction of the early 1930s refracted contemporary experience by speculating on the possibly disastrous consequences of constantly improving technology and limitless productivity... a society where robots operate a "City of Smoke," leaving human beings bored and unemployed in their "City of Beauty."

[343] {Tesla, Radio Power to Revolutionize the World, transportation, power, radio, wireless, 1930s, Depression} Nikola Tesla's "Radio Power to Revolutionize the World" predicted that airplanes and automobiles would one day be operated by radio-transmitted power from ground stations, eliminating forever the need for distribution lines.

[344] {technocrat, Technocratism}

[354] {streamlining, Geddes, design, products, 1930s, aerodynamics, speed, appliance} In the 1930s streamlining became especially popular; it borrowed the terminology and the shapes of aerodynamics to glamorize automobiles, refrigerators, mixers, dishwashers, and other appliances.

[357] {talking kitchen, 1933}

[368-71] {Futurama, General Motors, General Motors Futurama, 1939, world fair, fair, exposition, utopia, future, 1960, expectation, prediction, community} The single most successful exhibit, General Motors's Futurama, presented the world of 1960 as seen from a low-flying aircraft. Visitors saw Futurama from comfortable moving chairs, and listenened to a narrator expound upon the wonders they glimpsed beneath their feet... The fair as a whole presented a harmonious community, a world apparently without inequality, in which farm, factory, and city fitted neatly together. The theme exhibit exemplified this utopia.

[373] {House of Magic, General Electric, General Electric House of Magic, 1939, world fair, fair, exposition, utopia, future, expectation, prediction, community, visible sound, audible light, synesthaesia}

[375] {television, TV, 1939, General Electric} [Television was sold for the first time to the public at the 1939 New York World Fair by General Electric.]

[377] {radio controlled, RC, agriculture, radio-controlled, radio-operated, radio-operated tractors}

[381-382] {technological determinism, new technology, new, technology, social, culture, history, historiography, electricity, novelty, inventors, public, experts, impact, engineers, mystery} No machine is an abstract force moving through history. Rather, every new technology is a social construction and the terms of its adoption are culturally determined... Technological history is often written fromt eh point of view of the insider, an approach that focuses almost exclusively on the period of invention and development, culminating in the moment when the new macine is created, and exhing just as it reaches the market where it has an "impact." Yet most people are not inventors, engineers, or utility employees, and for them a device is only real once they begin to incorporate it into everyday experience. For them, a new technology is at first a mysterious novelty.

[382] {new technology, new, technology, social, culture, history, historiography, electricity, electrification, transform, transformation, popular, imagination, USA} The electrification of America is thus far more than the story of inventions and corporations; it involves a popular absorption in the potentialities for personal and social tranformation. As America electrified, in the imagination it became electrifying.


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