Monday, February 06, 2012

The Power Makers, by Maury Klein

The Power Makers: Steam, Electricity, and the Men Who Invented Modern America, by Maury Klein

In our modern world we get annoyed when we find a dead spot in cell coverage and a call is dropped; merely 80 years ago electricity was only easily available in the larger cities and there maybe every other house was wired for it. Klein ends his history of power with this 1920’s era when electricity had reached its tipping point, but begins in the late eighteenth century and the onset of steam power. Why single out steam from wind, water, and heat? As he states in the introduction, “Without the steam engine there would be no electricity. Together they form the foundation of the modern world.”

I quite enjoyed this book. Klein makes the complicated topic of power generation both accessible and interesting. I found it fun to read about the men whose names are now permanently attached to energy: Ohm, Watt, Hertz, Galvani, Volta, and Faraday among others. Klein’s sly humor sprinkled throughout was a treat as well. “Unfortunately, [Lavoisier’s] work was literally cut short in 1974 when he was guillotined during the horrors of the French Revolution.” The only spots that rang false to me were those where a fictional person named Ned visited the three world’s fairs that served as touchstones for the progress of energy technologies. The descriptions of the expos and the exhibits therein were effective, but the imaginary Ned forced a viewpoint unlike anything else in the book and was a jarring departure from the narrative.

Klein balances the technologies themselves with the businesses that brought them to market throughout the book, giving a holistic view of energy that truly makes for an informative read. For instance, Edison and Westinghouse are the two names most closely associated with modern electricity, but it turns out that Sam Insull may have had the most influence on how our power grid works today. He was the pioneer of electricity distribution, and figured out that by creating a constant load on the generation system allowed it to run at the most efficient and the most cost effective manner. To achieve this he went after the ice-making market. “Refrigeration worked beautifully with lighting; it peaked during the summer as the use of lights reached seasonal lows.” Insull may not have invented any of the technologies that harnessed electricity, but he did more for bringing cheap power to the masses than anyone else.

Fascinating book!

First Sentence:
One evening in September 1876 a nine-year old boy, call him Ned, got the surprise of his young life.

No comments:

Search This Blog