Post your thoughts about the reading and the questions that you had. Even if it snows, we’ll have a chance to discuss these at some point.
PAGE 138: “Yet despite its ubiquity, electricity seemed to defy definition, and remained a mystery to the citizenry who saw it everyday on the street.”
“Electricity: carrier of light and power, devourer of time and space; bearer of human speech over land and sea; greatest servant of man- yet itself unknown.”
As I started reading Electrifying America it was not what I expected and found it very interesting with the examples they used. I found the world fairs very striking and how the fairs would model an idealized future. This model would then show a man made universe with the achieved theme. One model was even set up to show what the late nineteenth century would look like with all the chaotic traffic, lighting all over the city, and even what life would be like of an immigrant that often would not have water and hardly any fresh air.
Throughout chapter 4 it was also talked about the public power companies in the 1920s which raised questions about fair rates, and public service. When thinking about the use of electricity it is important to also realize the problems that came with it especially when used in larger loads such as in “natural monopolies”
Chapter 7 went more in-depth with agriculture which has been a lot of our in class discussions over the past few weeks so it was nice being able to tie in another key to agriculture and how electricity helped life on the farm.
Page 290: “Thomas Edison suggested other applications in 1914: “For the farm, electricity should kill every danger of frost. It should draw water, at practically no cost, to overcome all dangers of drought, and it should even dry the soil when too great a rainfall threatens crops.” This was all great benefits that would really help life on the farm and even reading this, I was surprised of how much electricity actually does help the daily life of a farmer. Thomas Edison had a list longer than I would of expected and making daily jobs a lot less stressful.
Thinking about the history of American farm like since the early nineteenth century so many new factors came into play not just with electricity, but the relationship between the cities and towns, planting and harvesting machines, more crops are being produced, and most importantly the canals and railroads that developed the national market. Changes come fairly quickly and looking how life changes with the inventions is quite amazing and how much more simple daily life becomes.
Nye describes the generation of Early American Electricity. Chapter One summarizes prevailing theories electrical use. For example, theories suggested corn to grow so large one needs a saw to harvest individual stalks. The American understanding of electricity travelled with populations over time. “Electrification did not emerge everywhere at the same time . . . around the country.” [but we didnt have to read chapter one]
Nye next examines “The Great White Way”. This chapter is broken into a number of parts. Part 1 discusses light’s symbolism of progress by advancement in use. Part 2 depicts the scope of use and feelings created when electricity is used. Part 3 reintroduces specialty uses of light, especially for advertisement. Part 4 argues light enhanced areas and designers raced to top each other’s designs. Furthermore, a hidden reality behind the use of lighting and shadows is below. Finally, Nye describes extreme use of lighting design and painting techniques used to capture light on canvas.
Theater used light to triumph over darkness in the mid-1880s. Inventors knew “electric lighting … as a replacement for gaslight” (30) before Edison tinkered with the light bulb. The changeover from gas to lightbulbs was complicated; however, insurance cuts aided the transition due to the instability of gas lines and threat of fire. Man finally outdid the darkness and the Worlds Faire soon became witness.
The wide-use of electricity Worlds Faire came with mixed feelings. The Columbian Exposition provides famous example of public reaction to lighting. Enthralled spectators witnessed electric transportation everywhere. X-ray machine became a fun novelty and lighting design began to show off the structural components of architecture. Other expositions inspired a “tower [so] fascinating to behold [with] its paradoxical combination of shadowless, flattened outline when seen from a distance and its emergence as a tangible object when approached more closely.” (44)
The specialty use of lighting not only created the ability to see ones bones through skin, but also attracted attention to skyscrapers. Additionally, the formation of advertisement as a specialty industry correlates with lighting advances. Advertisers worked with architects to enhance the best qualities of a job. Electrical corporations also marketed the lighting techniques they had pioneered at world’s fairs to private customers, and began to transform the urban landscape.” (49) Light signs crossed into the space pedestrians’ awareness. Blocks of city streets light the night. Early lights used people flipping switches to change design patterns but later signs were automatic. “Intensive lighting seemed to actualize dreams of greatness… [light became a] glamorous symbol of progress and culture advancement… electrification offered clear economic incentives for many groups with access to the levers of power, with the upper middle class usually providing leadership.” (54) Every city wanted a section that rivaled Broadway.
Designers began to outdo each other creating eye-catching signs that would operate like clockwork. “Just as each world’s fair had to surpass the one before it to hold public interest, every display had to be bigger and more spectacular than the last.” (57) The public pressured engineers to surpass expectations. “Social meaning resided not only in skillful … engineering, but in the … perception of the new technologies as a spectacle.” (58) One technical artist used design theories from the Pan-American exposition; they added color to Niagara Falls. Some believed this is a “technologicaly sublime” use of electricity and other saw the natural beauty diminished with the flip of the switch. Subsequent to light producing textual messages (or the Bat-Symbol) on clouds, the public truly believed the sky was the limit.
Cities often relied on electricity more than realized. The rationing of resources during World War 1 brought darkness to many city streets for the first time in decades. The hidden reality of the matter became clear: the city is a dirty, scary place in the dark.
Part five is the section that provides the most “new” information. Rather, everything previous exists in the context of “many” other lessons, lectures, and peer-reviewed articles. Part 5 examines the infrequently written corner of technology in American Art History.
“The work of painters between 1900 and 1930 shows even more clearly how electric lighting began to suffice the American sense of place. The night cityscape was a new visual reality signifying a break in the continuity of lived experience that the painter confronted along with the rest of society.” (76) Artists welcomed the challenge of a new subject and an experimental medium to create shadows. The correlation between art and technology continues; “lighting engineers added a new array of powerful electric lights to the urban landscape, creating a brighter world of intense colors, other artists began to paint the city after nightfall, when full darkness made contrasts more absolute.” Various artists argued over various techniques for a period… and that brings us to the next portion that I will post later.
I found the readings to be really interesting. I thought it was interesting how Nye described electricity as a political issue. I find this interesting because today we only see it as an everyday luxury. A necessity, something that we must have. Therefore it was interesting to see that in the start people didn’t want it. Why wouldn’t a person want or have it? I wonder if a reason people now think of “backwards” when they think of the word “agriculture” is due to the fact that agriculture was the last major sector to be electrified. I think it is interesting to see how electricity transformed from a private enterprise into a social program. In addition Edison was not the first to create electricity. Europe was far ahead of America, this causes me to wonder how is it that the story is so centered around America bringing light in to the world essentially. This also made me wonder what story do Europeans learn about the development of electricity? I hope that we still get a chance to talk about this in class because I would really like to know what the antecedents were as well as those who predate Edison.