Skip to main content

The Electric Century - J. B. Williams ***

After reading J. B. Williams' The Electronics Revolution I couldn't resist also having a go at The Electric Century. The mysterious J. B. provides a similar mix of historical data and narrative, in this case for aspects of electricity, from generation to household products using it. Covering a total of 21 topics, plus intro and conclusion, Williams reminds us just how far the use of electricity has spread into our lives. As well as the obvious, we get, for example, the use in cars - not so much electric cars, but a requirement from day one in even the most basic petrol vehicle.

I say petrol, but Williams would say gasoline, as there is a really strange approach taken here. Although it covers both the US and the UK (and to an extent Europe), this is a very British book, giving far more detail on what happened in the UK than you would otherwise expect. Yet it's not only got American spelling it uses US words (so, for example, we hear of people in the UK using 'faucets' and riding on 'street cars'). And it goes even further to a remarkable extreme, giving historical UK prices in cents.

So we read, for instance, about the UK's 1916 Entertainment Tax and its impact on cinema seats. We are told 'It was quite severe with 2 cent (1 old pence) and 4 cent tickets attracting a 1 cent tax, and the common 4 cent to 12 cent range charge at 2 cents.' Okay, there is that small piece of context in the '1 old pence' but it's totally meaningless to give all those values in cents. This was, frankly, very irritating.

When it comes to the topics, Williams is very thorough, and as with the electronics book, he or she is at his or her best when giving us historical statistics and nuggets of information about, for example, the early fragmented electricity generation companies, or Marconi's work or the development of batteries. There tends not to be a huge amount of scientific content, not really, for example, describing how the various batteries work, just giving a quick overview of their makeup. Rather more so than the electronics book, there is quite a lot of material here that feels summary and that is stating the relatively obvious about, say, the impact of various households technologies. There is (also like the electronics book) a feeling this was written a few years ago - LED lighting, for example, is described as 'waiting in the wings' rather than being in active use.

Despite its flaws (almost because of them), I rather liked this book. As with its companion, this is because of those statistics and factoids. A graph of the very different rate of take-up of dishwashers in the US and UK, for example. Or the origin of the brand name Hotpoint in a company first making electric irons with... hot points. It's certainly not a book for everyone, but if you'd like to fill in some gaps in the history of technology, it's worth taking on.

Paperback:  

Kindle:  


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

Make, Think, Imagine - John Browne ***

When you read a politician's memoirs you know that, nine times out of ten, it won't really quite work, because the message can't carry a whole book. It's reminiscent of the old literary agent's cry of 'Is it a book, or is it an article?' It's not that there aren't a lot of words in such tomes. It's almost obligatory for these books to be quite chunky. But it's a fair amount of work getting through them, and you don't feel entirely satisfied afterwards. Unfortunately, that's rather how John Browne (former head of oil giant BP)'s book comes across.

It's not that the central thread is unimportant. It used to be the case, certainly in the UK, that science, with its roots in philosophy and the pursuit of knowledge, was considered far loftier than engineering, growing out of mechanical work and the pursuit of profit. There is, perhaps, still a whiff of this around in some circles - so Browne's message that engineering has been…

Bloom - Ruth Kassinger ***

There is much fascinating material in this chunky book by Ruth Kassinger. It may be my total ignorance of biology and everyone else knows these things, but I learnt so much - for example that seaweed is algae and not a plant, about algae's role in the development of land plants, about the algae in lichen and its contribution to coral reefs.

The book is divided into four broad sections: on the origins and development of algae, on algae (and particularly seaweed) as food, on making use of algae, for example, for biofuel, and on algae and climate change, particularly the bleaching of coral and algal blooms. This is all done in a very approachable writing style, mixing descriptive material that is never over-technical with narrative often featuring visits to different locations and to talk to a range of experts from those who study to algae to those who cook them.

There are two problems though. Firstly, the book is too long at 380 pages. Each section could do with a trim, but this wa…