Power Revolution

>Maury Klein, professor emeritus of history at URI, has written A dense and informative account of how generations of inventors developed steam and electric power, laying the foundation for modern society. Klein argues that this “power revolution” can only be understood by bringing together the histories of steam and electric power, since the latter would not have been possible without the former.

Klein frames the narrative by inventing a character named Ned, whom we meet as a nine-year-old boy traveling with his father to the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia. There Ned sees the “largest engine in the world”: a massive Corliss steam engine in Machinery Hall, powered by twenty boilers, and in turn powering (through an intricate system of gears and over seven miles of belts) almost every other machine in the fourteen-acre building.

Klein then casts back in time to chronicle the observations and experiments of seventeenth-century European scientists, which led to the invention of machines powered by steam—at first to pump excess water out of coal mines, and then to power machines in the textile industry. The march of progress is told through the collaborative and competing efforts of scientists, engineers, and inventors until we meet Ned again, this time when he visits the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893.

Ned “had read about electricity, but it had not yet come to the small Iowa town where he lived, except in the form of the telegraph at the train depot.” At Philadelphia, the steam engine had powered the other machines directly. In Chicago, forty-four steam engines generated the electricity that powered everything else (including the 265-foot Ferris wheel, which became the signature emblem of the exhibition).

The power revolution had taken place by the turn of the twentieth century, and with it came the material abundance that some historians equate with American identity. Klein states that “between 1890 and 1905 the output of electric power in the United States increased a hundredfold.” As companies like General Electric and Westinghouse figured out how to distribute power, industries begat industries and the modern world emerged. Although a bit turgid at times, Klein’s book is obviously well-researched, and his synthesis of history is convincing.

We see Ned one last time in his seventies as he boards the subway in 1939, on his way to the World’s Fair in Queens, New York. Here he “happened on a newfangled device called a television,” which he had read about but had never seen. With only two hours of programming a week, only available in the New York area, he wondered who would want one anyway?

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