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L’?lectricit? en r?seaux: Networks of Power

Author(s):Hughes, Thomas
Reviewer(s):Neufeld, John

Published by EH.NET (June 2005)

L’?lectricit? en r?seaux: Networks of Power (Annales historiques de l’?lectricit? 2). Paris: Victoires Editions, June 2004. 188 pp. ?30 (paperback), ISBN: 2-908056-82-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by John Neufeld, Department of Economics, University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

?lectricite de France, the national electric utility of France, formed the EDF Foundation in 1987, which, among other things, has supported research into the history of electrification around the world. In December 2003, a colloquium was held in Bordeaux, France, on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Thomas Hughes’ Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society 1880-1930. Scholars from the United States and France presented eleven papers, and these were assembled in the present volume with a preface by Pierre Lanthier and Christophe Borneau (in French), an introduction by Francois Caron (also in French) and an afterword (in English) by Thomas Hughes. My review will cover the six papers and afterword in English.

Hughes’ work is widely regarded as a masterpiece. It began with a discussion of the development of electrical technology with attention to many of the early inventors. This discussion gave considerable attention to Thomas Edison but also covered the work of many other American and European inventors. A particular electrical system, such as the alternating current system that superseded Edison’s direct current system, was viewed as a coherent entity whose success depended on the actions of many individuals and the interaction of social and political institutions. The latter is shown by a comparison of the development of the industry in the United States, Britain, and Germany. The impacts of social and political institutions were illustrated by case studies of electrification in Chicago, London, and Berlin. Hughes provided a conceptual framework on the stages through which a technological industry progresses, and this framework has influenced subsequent work on this industry. Although Hughes dealt with the interactions among politics, culture, and technology, the history of electrical technology was his central focus.

As would be expected from a conference proceeding, there is little coordination among the papers. Each author has made an effort to connect his or her work with that of Hughes, but the nature of the connections differs. I will briefly consider each article in the order in which it appears in the book.

Economists and business historians use the word “network” to refer to several different but related concepts. In “Webs of Influence and Control: Personal and Financial Networks in the Formative Years of the U.S. Electric Power Industry,” William Hausman uses the word to refer to individuals that worked in the same or related industries and whose shared participation on the boards of directors of different firms created a “network” interconnecting those firms. Using data from a 1916 report on the electric power industry from the Secretary of Agriculture, Hausman investigates the extent to which the same individuals served as directors in the Stone & Webster engineering firm, and the various electric utilities and financial institutions in Boston, Massachusetts. He finds a high degree of interconnection. He also provides evidence that the connections within both Boston and New York City were much greater than connections between the two cities. The paper is an interesting presentation of new research findings, but, as might be expected from a conference proceeding, it has a preliminary feel. There is, for example, no standard by which this degree of interconnection can be compared to that of other industries and no exploration of the impact of this degree of interconnection may have had on the behavior or the development of the individual firms or their industries.

In “The Power of Networks: Defining the Boundaries of the Natural Monopoly Networks and the Implications for the Restructuring of Electricity Industries,” Martin Chick provides a brief recent history of the efforts in a number of countries to bring market-based competition to the electric power industry. Chick, who teaches at the University of Edinburgh, is best in his treatment of Britain, although this may reflect my relative ignorance more than his presentation. My awareness of the U.S. situation causes me to feel that he omits some events helpful in understanding that case (such as the problems with nuclear power, high nominal interest rates in 1970s, and the PURPA law designed to encourage renewable energy and cogeneration). His paper is a useful introduction to Americans who (like me) are relatively ignorant of the parallel developments that occurred in other countries.

I found considerable similarity in the approaches taken in the papers by Richard Hirsh (“Power Struggle: Changing Momentum in the Restructured American Electric Utility System”) and David Nye (“Electricity and Culture: Conceptualizing the American Case”). Both authors have written a number of books on the history of the U.S. electric power industry. Hirsch’s recent work deals with the industry’s recent (post World War II) history. Nye’s work generally involves the impacts of electrification on American culture and deals more with that late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century. Although the works of the two authors are very different, each author in his paper attempts to connect his work with Hughes’ landmark book. Hirsch seeks to connect Hughes’ concept of technological “momentum” with developments that Hirsch covers in his recent book Power Loss, in which he argued that the deregulation movement wrested control of the industry from industry managers. Nye draws on concepts he developed in his book Electrifying America, where he emphasized the interaction between social and cultural factors and the process of electrification. Nye argues that Hughes “momentum” is similar to his “social construction of technology,” but that both differ from the seemingly similar concept of “path dependence,” which Nye criticizes.

Gabrielle Hecht’s “Colonial Networks of Power: The Far Reaches of Systems,” is concerned not with the electric power industry but with nuclear policy in the United States, Britain, and France. She describes how the demand for uranium reinforced the relationships that Britain and France had with former colonies. The United States is the only country of the three to have significant domestic uranium resources, but became involved with British efforts to develop uranium production in that country’s colonies. Differences in relationships with former colonies are used to explain differences in each country’s attitudes towards nuclear power.

“Sites of Innovation in Electrical Technology, 1880-1914,” by Robert Fox and Anna Guagnini considers the locus of the most important technological innovations. Much of what they say apparently is drawn from their book Laboratories, Workshops, and Sites. (I haven’t read this book and draw this conclusion from what they say in the paper.) Conventional wisdom holds that in the early period of the technical development of electrical equipment, most of the innovation came from “great men” (such as Thomas Edison or William Stanley), with or without assistants. After World War I, innovation became more diffuse — the product of large numbers of engineers largely working in companies that were producing products. Fox and Guagnini argue that even in the early period, the “shop floor” was the primary locus of innovation. Engineers and craftsmen were typically working beyond the frontiers of theoretical knowledge. They cite as examples the development of the transformer at Ganz & Co, and the case of the AC induction motor. Credit for the latter is often given to Nickola Tesla, who patented a single-phase motor but was not able to produce a really practical product. That achievement fell to a number of different people working at a Swiss and a German firm. Fox and Guagnini argue that it was this “shop floor” capability that ultimately determined which countries would be industry leaders and which would be in the “slow lane.”

Thomas Hughes “Afterword” does not really engage any of the works in the volume. Instead, he provides a brief discussion and definition of some of the terms he used in describing the conceptual framework he articulated in Networks of Power: “Reverse Salients,” “Load Factor,” “Economic Mix,” “Phased Development,” “Momentum,” and “Style.” I do not see that he takes issue with the use of these terms by any of the volume’s other authors.

Overall I found the volume readable and a nice tribute to the contribution Thomas Hughes has made to the history of electrification. Hausman’s is the only paper that presents substantial new research results, and his paper seems early in its development. The primary value of the other papers is in the summary they offer of the positions articulated by their respective authors in previous books. Copies of this volume may be hard to find in the United States, but it is available at

John Neufeld is Professor of Economics at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and is author (often with William Hausman) of a number of articles on the history of the electric power industry. He and Hausman are currently working on a book of that industry.

Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII