Hughes’ book, an exhaustive study of electrification from 1880 to 1930, primarily focuses on the development of electric grids in the United States, Great Britain, and Germany. Hughes is primarily concerned with working out a complex conceptual framework for understanding technology as system. He characterizes electrical systems as fundamentally constituted not only of interconnected technological artifacts (generators, couplers, relays, lamps) but also local, regional, and national political structures, perceived (and manufactured) societal need, geographical features, etc. The form that electric grids take is not determined by internal (mechanical or scientific) necessity, but by external social factors. Thus the electric grid developed very differently depending upon the structures of the local governments that had jurisdiction over them: In Chicago, a system was developed quickly due to the tight connection between the city government and the local business community; in London, a stratified government based upon traditional wards lead to an electrical system marked by many local companies, with no technological standardization. Electrical grids were built differently in the U.S. Northeast, where urban centers clustered around water sources (and thus hydroelectric generation sites), than in California, where populations were clustered in the West, with most significant hydroelectric sources in the East—the result was innovation in long-distance power transfer, and an entirely different electric grid. Thomas Edison’s DC system was designed for operation in New York City, and failed to work economically in rural areas (a major factor in the “battle of the systems”: Direct Current versus Alternating Current). Hughes’ account, dense in technical detail as it is, provides a powerful framework for understanding not only electrical technologies, but any complex technological system. Perhaps most saliently, Hughes provides a detailed account of the ways in which technological systems, as originally conceived and as they grow, are determined by a complex set of social factors.
-ZHTagged with: electrification • standardization • technological systems