Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940
496 pp., 6 x 9 in,
- Published: November 29, 1990
- Published: July 8, 1992
How did electricity enter everyday life in America? Using Muncie, Indiana—the Lynds' now iconic Middletown—as a touchstone, David Nye explores how electricity seeped into and redefined American culture. With an eye for telling details from archival sources and a broad understanding of cultural and social history, he creates a thought-provoking panorama of a technology fundamental to modern life.
Emphasizing the experiences of ordinary men and women rather than the lives of inventors and entrepreneurs, Nye treats electrification as a set of technical possibilities that were selectively adopted to create the streetcar suburb, the amusement park, the "Great White Way," the assembly line, the electrified home, and the industrialized farm. He shows how electricity touched every part of American life, how it became an extension of political ideologies, how it virtually created the image of the modern city, and how it even pervaded colloquial speech, confirming the values of high energy and speed that have become hallmarks of the twentieth century. He also pursues the social meaning of electrification as expressed in utopian ideas and exhibits at world's fairs, and explores the evocation of electrical landscapes in painting, literature, and photography. Electrifying America combines chronology and topicality to examine the major forms of light and power as they came into general use. It shows that in the city electrification promoted a more varied landscape and made possible new art forms and new consumption environments. In the factory, electricity permitted a complete redesign of the size and scale of operations, shifting power away from the shop floor to managers. Electrical appliances redefined domestic work and transformed the landscape of the home, while on the farm electricity laid the foundation for today's agribusiness.
David Nye casts his bright light on everything from assembly lines to washing machines, from the plummeting price of urban electricity to the usefulness of electric incubators in chicken farming...Mr. Nye succeeds not simply because he knows his technology, but also because be understands the complexity of American culture...[He] has the breadth of knowledge and the good sense to see the significance in paintings like Edward Hopper's 'Nighthawks'...and to weave such observations into the very armature of his argument that electricity transformed not only American life but the American self.
John R. Stilgoe
New York Times Book Review
Nye undertakes the monumental, and previous uncompleted, task of examining the social transformations that a new source of energy initiated. The result is a highly sophisticated and innovative account which crosses over several disciplinary lines.
Dwight W. hoover, Director, Center for Middletown Studies, Ball State University
David Nye has provided what has so often been lacking in the history of new technologies - a sustained and comprehensive analysis of electricity's social and cultural impact. From factory to household, from trolley line to exposition, and from rural hamlet to Great White Way, Nye explores both how people selectively employed electricity to change their lives and how they constructed and reconstructed its cultural 'meaning.' Through absorbing details and casr studies, Nye affords us an intimate view of the 'public relations' and personal relevance of electricity as it was incorporated into the everyday life of individual families, of mushrooming cities, and of the entire nation.
Rolan Marchand, Professor of History, University of California, Davis. Author of Advertising the American Dream
David Nye is pioneering a new kind of technological history by showing how social and cultural systems shape technological ones. This is a wide-ranging, provocative study.
Rosalind Williams, Associate Professor, Humanities Dept., MIT
Nye tells a compelling story of how people react to a new technology when they see the potential for both personal and social transformation. As a Tennessee farmer said in 1930—'The greatest thing on earth is to have the love of God in your heart and the next greatest thing is to have electricity in your home.' This is a delight.
G. Terry Sharrer, Curator of Agriculture, Smithsonian Institution
David Nye, in Electrifying America, continues to provide leadership in integrating material culture with the traditional focus of American Studies on the realm of symbolic meaning.
David W. Nobble, Professor of American Studies and History, University of Minnesota