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ELECTRICITY. AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE ELECTRIFIED WORLD. Justin Chan English 399 . Electricity: Its Importance during the Second Industrial Revolution.

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Justin Chan

English 399


Electricity: Its Importance during the Second Industrial Revolution

Despite being discovered thousands of years prior to the 19th century, electricity began to gain prominence during the Second Industrial Revolution (1870 – 1914). During this period, there was an endless supply of new inventions, a growing number of technological improvements, and a shift in the organization of production.

Two prominent electrical inventions were created during this time:

In 1879, Thomas Edison developed one of the earliest versions of the light bulb by using ordinary cotton thread soaked in carbon. These light bulbs were initially battery-powered, until he designed and built the first electric power plant.

Between 1885 and 1895, George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla revolutionized the electricity industry by developing and introducing alternating current (AC) power systems. These systems allowed power plants to transport electricity much farther than before.

These two particular inventions consequently led to an increasing interest in electricity. The widespread availability of electricity, in turn, gave rise to hundreds of inventions.


Electricity: Its Importance during the Second Industrial Revolution

At the same time, many other inventors found ways to create or utilize electricity effectively. For example:

In 1884, Charles Parsons invented the steam turbine. The turbine efficiently converted the power of steam into electricity and therefore became incredibly important in marine propulsion and electrical generation.

In 1903, the first successful gas turbine was developed in France. Unlike the steam turbine, the gas turbine was convenient because it was lighter and simpler in its design and construction.

In 1907, Lee De Forest invented the electric amplifier. This led to Forest’s rise as one of the early pioneers of radio development.


Electricity: Transformation of Society

Without a doubt, electricity transformed civilization. It also came to define what was considered “modern” and “non-modern.” The presence of electricity in a society often revealed its technological prowess, whereas the lack of electricity suggested a degree of primitivism.

In truth, electricity was largely responsible for the socioeconomic construction of American society during the 19th and 20th centuries. It drew a distinct line between the well-to-do and the lower class:

“The grid of wires covered the nation in a period of only sixty years, beginning in the city during the 1880s. The first electrified places were wealthy residences, hotels, theaters, department stores, and clubs, many of which installed in their own isolated generating plants. They made the new technology synonymous with wealth, power, and privilege.”

David E. Nye

Electrifying America


Electricity: Transformation of Society

Electricity also promoted a sense of self-independence as its usage spread across the nation:

“Americans used the flexibility of electrical power to atomize society rather than to integrate it. Electricity permitted them to intensify individualism, as they rejected centralized communal services in favor of personal control over less efficient but autonomous appliances…[T]he combination of American individualism and a reliance on the marketplace to determine the shape of development produced the dominance of private utilities…”

David E. Nye

Electrifying America


Electricity: Transformation of Society

Despite its many benefits, electricity also had its drawbacks. Because it made industrial production more efficient, there was increasing competition over skilled and unskilled labor. No one had expected that this particular discovery would have such a tremendous impact on the economy:

“The public had not anticipated that the new technology would increase the centralization of economic power…Productivity rose in the electrified factory, permitting shorter hours, higher pay, and more consumer goods. Yet pressures on the job also increased as managers achieved greater technical control over work, and in contrast to the dream of automated factories that eliminated human toil came either a stepped-up piecework system or the assembly line…For some, electrification meant unemployment, as a few skilled jobs replaced unskilled labor.”

David E. Nye

Electrifying America


Electricity: Two Different Cities

According to David E. Nye, electricity helped propel the development of two particular cities: One was the “white city” of the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893 and the other was a rather chaotic city that differed greatly from the “white city.”

The “white city” was a prime example of the many fairs and expositions that highlighted electricity in their design. These fairs were especially appealing to the public because of their extravagant electric displays. Symbolically, these fairs represented both power and idealism. Historians have argued that American fairs were considered “triumphs of hegemony” that allowed the cultural aristocracy to flaunt their prestige.

At the same time, according to Nye,

“World fairs modeled an idealized future, projecting a man-made universe where every object was in harmonious relationship with an overarching theme. They were middle-class visions of order, cast in the imported Beaux Arts style and sponsored by the same cultural elite that built up the new museums of history and art. Their ideal was a horizontal monumentality, and their object was to expose the ugliness of late nineteenth-century American cities, with their chaotic traffic, irregular lighting, and immigrants crowded into tenements that often had no running water and little fresh air.”


Electricity: Two Different Cities

Electricity buildings were often the focus at these fairs. According to Nye, “they helped to impose a middle-class progressive order on the world, and they helped to give the visitor an explanatory blueprint of social experience.”

Generally speaking, Nye adds, “each fair offered a coherent set of symbols that linked past, present, and future, providing a vision of order during a convulsive period characterized by political corruption, violet strikes, rapid industrialization, and enormous immigration from Southern Europe.”

As such, many people from the middle- and upper-class attended these events to escape the reality around them.


Electricity: Two Different Cities

Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893


Electricity: Two Different Cities

The Chicago Columbian Exposition was labeled the “white city” because it was meant to exhibit and mimic the style of classical Roman architecture. The buildings themselves were made of white stucco and were heavily illuminated by nearby street lights.

In an effort to illustrate technological progress, the fair had several exhibits that featured “ethnological villages.” These villages were meant to symbolize primitivism. On the other hand, “advanced societies” were decorated with electrified machines and lighting. As Nye points out, “Darkness was a metaphor for the primitive; light was the exemplification of Christianity, science and progress.”

Nye further notes, “Spectacular lighting was dramatic, nonutilitarian, abstract, and universalizing. It provided a brilliant canopy, connecting the many exhibits, statues, fountains, and pools in one design that was at once refined, ethereal, and stunning.”


Electricity: Two Different Cities

One particular reporter commented on the fair, saying,

“Look from a distance at the night, upon the broad spaces it fills, and the majestic sweep of the searching lights, and it is as if the earth and sky were transformed by the immeasurable wands of colossal magicians and the superb dome of the structure that is the central jewel of the display is glowing as if bound with wreaths of stars. It is electricity! When the whole casket is illuminated, the cornices of the palaces of the White City are defined with celestial fire.”

In fact, electricity did more than just illuminate exhibits at the fair. It also contributed to various modes of transportation to and from the fair.


Electricity: Two Different Cities

The Discordant Electrified City


Electricity: Two Different Cities

Nye contrasts the grandness of the “white city” with the ugliness of the discordant city. According to him,

“The cities had been built rapidly after the Civil War on a monotonous grid pattern, and they lacked the aesthetic unity of the great expositions. They were discordant environments, indiscriminately mixing a great variety of styles juxtaposing new towers with two-story buildings and squalid apartments. Electricity did not improve conditions, but rather intensified the contrast.”

One particular nagging problem of electricity in these cities was the abundance of wires and poles that were erected for the telephone, telegraph, street lighting, and private power. Many people, especially those in New York, believed that these wires and poles were ruining the image of the city.

In addition, the increasing number of illuminated advertising signs infuriated thousands of people who believed that the lighting intensified the streets to an unnecessary degree.


Electricity: Two Different Cities

The racial undertones that underlie these two descriptions (one of the “white city” and one of the discordant one) are significant. The modern, here, seemed to be typically associated with the white elite whereas the primitive was clearly attributed to those of color.

Undoubtedly, those who could afford to arrange these fairs were powerful white entrepreneurs. Those who attended these fairs were also mostly white. As such, to label a fair such as the Chicago Columbian Exposition as the “white city” was fitting.

In a sense, electricity reinforced racial differences, thereby hindering any social progress that could have occurred during the early 19th century.


Electricity: The Two Cities and the Shadow City

How are these two cities different from the shadow city that is depicted in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle?

In what ways does the shadow city resemble the discordant city? In what ways does it resemble the “white city?”


Electricity: Its Relation to The Great Gatsby

Which city is reflected in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby? What does West Egg represent? Though the reader learns that many of the city’s wealthy entrepreneurs live in East Egg and West Egg, can these areas be seen as chaotic in nature?

What kind of effect does electricity have on the characters, particularly Jay Gatsby?

Is electricity negatively or positively portrayed in The Great Gatsby? How does it affect the overall plot of the story?


Electricity: Its Relation to The Great Gatsby

“Involuntarily I glanced seaward — and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.” - Chapter 1, The Great Gatsby

“’If it wasn’t for the mist we could see your home across the bay,’ said Gatsby. ‘You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock.’” – Chapter 5, The Great Gatsby

“And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.” – Chapter 9, The Great Gatsby

What does the green light ultimately represent?



Childe Hassam


John Sloan

Six O’ Clock


Oil on canvas


Electricity: Images

Dan Witz

Garden Gate

Oil and Digital Media on Canvas

J.P. Bell

Intersection, Little Rock, Arkansas



Electricity: Today

“We are creatures of the grid. We are embedded in it and empowered by it. The sun used to govern our lives, but now, thanks to the grid, darkness falls at our con­venience.During the Depression, when power lines first electrified rural America, a farmer in Tennessee rose in church one Sunday and said—power companies love this story—"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 house." He was talking about a few light bulbs and maybe a radio. He had no idea.

Juice from the grid now penetrates every corner of our lives, and we pay no more attention to it than to the oxygen in the air. Until something goes wrong, that is, and we're suddenly in the dark, fumbling for flashlights and candles, worrying about the frozen food in what used to be called (in pre-grid days) the icebox. Or until the batteries run dry in our laptops or smart phones, and we find ourselves scouring the dusty corners of airports for an outlet, desperate for the magical power of electrons.”

Joel Achenbach

“The 21st Century Grid: Can we fix the

infrastructure that powers our lives?”

National Geographic, July 2010


Electricity: Today

“An unexpected drop in U.S. electricity consumption has utility companies worried that the trend isn't a byproduct of the economic downturn, and could reflect a permanent shift in consumption that will require sweeping change in their industry.

To be sure, electricity use fluctuates with the economy and population trends. But what has executives stumped is that recent shifts appear larger than others seen previously, and they can't easily be explained by weather fluctuations. They have also penetrated the most stable group of consumers -- households.”

Rebecca Smith

“Surprise Drop in Power Use Delivers Jolt

to Utilities”

Wall Street Journal, November 2008


Electricity: Depiction in Contemporary Media


Blade Runner, 1982

Directed by Ridley Scott

Based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?


The Matrix Revolutions, 2003

Directed by Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski