'Power Struggles' Illuminates History of Technological Change
Anthropology Professor Michael Brian Schiffer's latest book details how social forces often set the tone for new product development in the years leading up to Thomas Edison's first commercial electric light grid.

Jeff Harrison
Aug. 25, 2008

Thomas A. Edison is widely credited with creating the first commercial electrical system when his generating station lit up a section of New York City in 1882.

In fact, Edison's accomplishment was to bring electricity to a business district in Manhattan, a project that took the better part of two years, and was a very big deal at the time.

But it was not the first time commercially generated power illuminated our lives, says Michael Brian Schiffer, author of "Power Struggles: Scientific Authority and the Creation of Practical Electricity Before Edison," just published by MIT Press.

Schiffer, the Fred A. Riecker Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at The University of Arizona, points out that the 19th century produced waves of new electrical technologies.

Edison's Pearl Street power station was undoubtedly the most widely publicized, but generator-powered lighthouses in the early 1860s certainly had an immediate technological and social impact. Even Edison's Pearl Street generators were the direct descendants of those built a half century earlier.

Schiffer's book, his sixth about the development of technology, is largely about the people, scientists and non-scientists, and their inventions who paved the way for Edison and others, and there were many.

"Power Struggles" details the histories of several benchmark innovations, including hard-fought battles over whether some of them could even be brought to market, and why some failed and others succeeded.

"By examining these pioneering technologies and enterprises, we can better appreciate Edison's achievements," Schiffer writes in his book. "[Edison's] success represents, above all, the convergence of many favorable factors – financial, social, scientific and technological – that enabled him to pursue his vision relentlessly to the point where his electrical system could be pronounced practical."

Even the term practical is and was as much a social definition as a technical or marketing term. Schiffer draws parallels between emerging technologies and capitalism, including the role played by the eminent scientist and first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Joseph Henry, on new innovations.

Schiffer has written several books on technology, including the Pulitzer Prize-nominated "Taking Charge: The Electric Automobile in America" in 1994, "The Portable Radio in American Life" and "The Material Life of Human Beings."

Schiffer also is a research associate at the Lemelson Center at the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian, and is regarded as a leading proponent of behavioral archaeology.


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Michael Brian Schiffer