Today, we become electrified. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
I suspect that you and I are in the
middle of the most rapid and intense technological
revolution the world has ever seen. The last one that
came even close was the sudden introduction of some
fifteen million new printed books, just after Gutenberg.
Now we have a billion new computers, and they're linked
by the Internet.
Trying to understand such an assault while it's happening
is like watching rain come down and failing to see the
gathering deluge. We need to stand outside of time
and space. The best we can do is to look for parallels in
So I've been looking at early-twentieth-century books on
electricity to see how we reacted to the arrival of
public electric power. Edison built a power plant to
supply his new electric lights in 1882 -- New York City's
Pearl Street Station. But such
plants soon began serving many other new technologies.
One of the most important was electric-rail-trolley service.
By 1889, fifty trolley systems were running in America on
only a hundred total miles of track. Our cities
immediately began building light rail on a very small
scale. Thirty years
later, more than a thousand trolley systems were
operating on almost fifty thousand miles of track. As
early as 1907, the average American in a small city rode
the trolley around eighty times a year. In big cities
people rode the trolley almost daily. Thus, even before
the automobile, cities were being reshaped by a radical
new transportation medium that has almost vanished today.
A 1926 book argues for the electrification of
agriculture. Its author speaks vaguely about needs for
and the farmhouse
itself. While he has no clear idea what the scope of
electrical use will be, he strongly believes that farmers
should look to hydroelectric power. Seven years later,
President Roosevelt signed the TVA
Act, which provided rural hydroelectric power on a
A 1910 book tells the early history of the telephone. Two
pictures of a New York City street show it darkened by telephone wires in 1890,
and then clear of wires twenty years later. The lines
were already underground and assimilated.
As the author talks about hopes for developing
long-distance, and transoceanic, service, he says
something that catches us by surprise. He believes that
full telephone service must be provided by a monopoly.
You and I look at competing computer operating systems,
and we wish we didn't have to worry about Unix, Windows,
and Mac. We forget that the raw energy of creative
cross-fertilization is what drives technology now, just
as it drove it then.
These authors all knew that something vast was afoot.
Each asked, in one way or another, where electricity was
taking us. None had the answer, nor did any see how
electricity was derailing every expectation as it took
shape. It was a world, in all respects, remarkably like
the one that's sweeping you and me along today.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
Ashe, S. W., Electric Railways Theoretically and
Practically Treated. Vols. 1 and 2, New York: D. Van
Nostrand Co., 1907.
Buck, M. B., The Electric Railway, New York:
McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1915.
Harding, C. F., and Ewing, D. D., Electric Railway
Engineering. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co. 1926.
Tripp, G. E., Electric Development as an Aid to
Agriculture. New York: The Knickerbocker Press, 1926.
Casson, H. N., The History of the Telephone.
Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co., 1910.