Before the Lights Go Out is Maggie's new book about how our current energy systems work, and how we'll have to change them in the future. It comes out April 10th and is available for pre-order (in print or e-book) now. Over the next couple of months, Maggie will be posting some energy-related stories based on things she learned while researching the book. This is one of them.
One of the things I loved about researching my book on the future of energy was getting the opportunity to delve a little into the history of electricity. Although I'd heard plenty about the Tesla vs. Edison wars—the "great men doing important things" side of the story—I was pretty unfamiliar with the impact their inventions had on average people, and how those people responded and adapted to changing technology.
What I found in my research was fascinating. I spent a lot of time in the archives at the Wisconsin Historical Society, turning up letters and documents that introduced me to a perspective on history I'd not previously known. I learned about the skepticism and fear that surrounded electricity in the 19th and early 20th century. I found out that many, many of the early electric utilities went bankrupt—unable to make enough money selling electricity to cover the costs of building the expensive systems to produce and distribute it. I learned that, outside the hands of a privileged few geniuses, electric infrastructure and generation was a slapdash affair, focused more on quick, cheap construction than reliable operation—a reality that still affects the way our grid works today.
Last week, I spoke about some of this history, and its impact on our future, at the University of Minnesota. (You can watch a recording of that speech online.) Afterwards, Christopher Mayr, director of development at the U's Institute on the Environment, told me about the video I've posted here. In it, Doris Duborg Hughes, a lifelong Wisconsinite, talks about her father, farmer Rudolph Duborg, and the hydroelectric power plant he and his brother built on Wisconsin's Crawfish River in 1922.
This is a great story about Makers tinkering with "crazy" ideas at a time when very few people knew anything about electricity, and when getting electricity on a farm was a near impossibility. By the 1920s, some electric utilities were beginning to turn a profit ... but only in cities, where population density meant you could spread the cost of infrastructure over a lot of customers. Having electricity on the farm meant building the infrastructure yourself, something few people had the drive (and money) to manage.
Doris Hughes' earliest memories involve her family putting up the men who came to wire the farmhouse. She was a child when the system went in, and that's part of what I like about this story. It's very clearly coming through the filter of childhood. Because of that, we get details like Hughes remembering that she wasn't supposed to turn lights off in the house, during the day or at night, because she was told that doing so might break the system.
Also fascinating: Henry Ford sent men to inspect the Duborg hydroelectric plant, apparently as part of research into a manufacturing scheme very different from the factory system Ford is known for today. In the late 'teens and early '20s, Ford was convinced that he could harness water power to bring electricity to farms, then split the elements of automobile construction among a number of electrified farms in a geographic region. The result (he hoped): More employment in rural communities and an increase in living standards. You can learn a little more about this at the end of the video.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.