Saturday, July 09, 2011

The Electrification Zeitgeist

Jill Jonnes, in her book Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World, shows how the understanding of electromagnetism developed over a period of centuries. There were efforts to utilize the knowledge gained to create useful products, such as the early one by Benjamin Franklin that succeeded in the creation of the lightning rod. However, something changed in the latter part of the 19th century when many people started to work to develop technologies based on the knowledge of electromagnetism, with many successes.

The book also makes clear that, as Brian Arthur shows so clearly in his book The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves, the development of electrical technology was incremental, with people building upon the work of other people. There is a myth that Edison had to create the entire system of motor-generators, transmission wires (with insulation and underground installation systems), voltage control systems, circuit breakers and especially the incandescent bulb out of whole cloth. Jonnes makes clear that there were many contemporary inventors working on these devices and that Edison was uniquely successful in making many improvements on pre-existing inventions to improve the overall operation of the system and raise it to commercial operation and (temporary) success.

As Thomas Hughes points out in Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930, electrical systems are prototypical network technologies. It is necessary to develop the technology for generation, distribution and application of electrical power together. Without all three subsystems commercial application is not possible. It is also the case that once systems were in place, new application technologies came in increasing numbers of killer apps -- motors for trolley cars and machines, industrial electro-chemical processes, radio, household appliances, etc.

Edison was perhaps successful in the invention of the industrial research and development laboratory in which scores of people worked together on the improvement of the technology, increasing the rate of success in technology improvement by an order of magnitude over that which the lone inventor could achieve.

I suppose that the phenomenon could be put down to a zeitgeist, but that simply puts the question to the next level. Why did the zeitgeist for development of electrical systems occur when it did? One part of the answer is clearly that there had to develop a critical mass of "scientific" understanding of electricity to enable technological development. Prior to Faraday's discovery that a wire moving in a magnetic field would generate an electrical current, I don't see how generator technology could have been developed.

I suspect that there were other prerequisites, such as the development of machine technology in the Industrial Revolution. Could generators have been produced economically prior to the development of the technology for casting iron, or the technology for machining metal parts. Similarly, since all the early motor-generator sets were based on steam engines, the development of the steam engine would seem a necessary prerequisite to the development of electrical systems. (Hydroelectric systems and internal combustion engines came later.)

Were there necessary social conditions? The fact that both Tesla and Steinmetz were European university educated suggests that the development of higher education for technologists may have been needed. The role of investment bankers and the stock market suggests the need for economic institutions. The importance of patent protection suggests the need for intellectual property protection to be institutionalized, and for the rule of law to be established. Indeed, it seems likely that there had to be a very affluent upper class and a middle class with sufficient per capita income to provide the markets for the initial development and secondary dissemination of electrical systems technology.

I suspect that it would be relatively easy to make the argument that a similar spectrum of conditions had to be in place before the Internet Revolution could take place.

In the case of the growth and development of the electrical system, rural electrification of the United States was not completed until the New Deal included subsidies for rural electrification; electrical networks are still far from complete in the least developed nations. Similarly, the economic growth stimulated by the availability of electrical power and of tools to harness and apply that power took generations to evolve after such landmarks as the Paris and Columbian Expositions in the late 19th century. I suppose we may infer that there will be a similar long process of exploiting the potential in the Internet Revolution.

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