Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930. Baltimore(Reading group summary)

It was great to be reading Hughes’ classic work with current DEMAND issues in mind.  As the following questions demonstrate, this text continues to inspire.  Amongst the topics discussed we wondered about what it means to produce a history of a system (as opposed to a person, a place, etc.).  Hughes’ selection of cases is based on a model of system evolution that has clear phases and a strong sense of direction: but what of the present?  Can we identify ‘reverse salients’ currently being fixed? Do systems have momentum of their own, and a path from which they are deflected by ‘events’?  Although Hughes’ account of the early days of making electricity is plausible and convincing, his core ideas seem to be less convincing when applied to the present day.

The politics and economics of electrical power are always to the fore- Hughes notices the significance of different accounting systems, shareholders, etc. for the direction in which networks of power developed – but is this only visible with hindsight?  Who are the current experts being listened to? Where do the political and economic interests now lie and how are these changing?  We know professional and expert knowledge remains important, but how does that develop and stabilise within and between countries?

Not surprisingly, we talked about the missing bit of the jigsaw: DEMAND.  Whilst engineers figure prominently as problem solvers, consumers are all but invisible.  The problem of matching supply and demand is evident, but whether grids are usefully seen as responses to rising demand or opportunities/occasions for it is an open question.  In thinking about this we need to keep in view the relation between household and industrial demand.  Alongside that, there are parallel demographic and social changes that are also key for energy demand: e.g. in patterns of work, home ownership and the like.

We ended by wondering what a Hughes-style account might offer on the topics of renewable energy, fracking, negumption and decentralisation.  Are we, perhaps, observing the contemporary unravelling of the integrated system that Hughes defines and describes?  Time will tell.