Lessons from the age of electricity

I’ve done a bunch of posts lately based on reading on the invention of the electric light and the spread of electricity. (I’ve linked to all those posts at the bottom of this one.) I thought it’d be worthwhile to list a few of the lessons I’ve drawn from that reading. Here goes:

  1. Culture matters. Culture affects innovation, both on the supply and the demand side. On the supply side, it seems likely that Americans’ self-conception as an inventive nation became a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. On the demand side, Americans’ eagerness to adopt the electric light quite clearly contributed to the U.S. adopting it more rapidly than in Europe.
  2. Institutions matter and regulation is essential. The electric light was a profoundly positive invention, on net. But it also contributed to the exploitation of workers and caused frequent accidents. Interestingly, private insurers helped create industry standards to limit accidents. But regulation was essential to limiting the downsides of the new technology.
  3. Technology can exacerbate inequality. Cities got the electric light before rural areas, and the contributed to a growing divide between urban and rural America.
  4. It takes time to realize a technology’s full potential. A fun example of this is the battle to adopt lampshades. Who’d pay extra for light then put it under a shade? (See pages 267-268 of Age of Edison.) But a more serious example concerns the decades-long lag between the introduction of electric motors to manufacturing and the productivity boom that they enabled.

Here are the posts I put up on this subject over the past several weeks:

America’s adoption of the electric light.

America the inventive.

Who gets credit for America’s adoption of electricity?

Electricity, the New Deal, and America’s urban-rural divide.

The electric lag.

Labor and the electric light.

 

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