Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies

Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies

Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies

Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies


How did the United States become the world's largest consumer of energy? David Nye shows that this is less a question about the development of technology than it is a question about the development of culture. In Consuming Power, Nye uses energy as a touchstone to examine the lives of ordinary people engaged in normal activities. He looks at how these activities changed as new energy systems were constructed, from colonial times to recent years. He also shows how, as Americans incorporated new machines and processes into their lives, they became ensnared in power systems that were not easily changed: they made choices about the conduct of their lives, and those choices accumulated to produce a consuming culture.

Nye examines a sequence of large systems that acquired and then lost technological momentum over the course of American history, including water power, steam power, electricity, the internal-combustion engine, atomic power, and computerization. He shows how each system became part ofa larger set of social constructions through its links to the home, the factory, and the city.


Steam power came to the city in two stages: first as transportation and later as manufacturing power. Both dramatically changed America's landscapes. the steamboat transformed the Great Lakes and the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, and Hudson rivers into highways, which were connected into a national water transport network by canals. Starting in the 1840s, the railroad network extended this system still further, accelerating the flow of people, goods, and information.

The cities of the interior were released from winter isolation. Improved transportation literally extended the hinterland of each city, spurring it to compete for a place in the larger market. During the first half of the nineteenth century these were still compact "walking cities" in which the social classes rubbed shoulders. Their daily rhythm was shaped by the steamboat landing and the train depot. Their main streets were still modest in length. in scale they were appropriate to a world shaped by individuals and family businesses. Although these cities were trading centers, the department store was not yet thought of.

The tidewater cities and trading towns on the major rivers were not manufacturing centers. in the water-power economy that persisted in much of the United States until 1850, they were centers of trade and artisanal work. Iron was made in the countryside, near where charcoal was manufactured. Mills towns were dispersed along the watercourses; lumber, tools, paper, textiles, and other manufactured goods were produced along rural streams. in 1840 there were 60,000 small water-powered establishments, most of them located on streams that were not likely to be . . .

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