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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.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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