Book reviews

The best new technology books.

When the light went out: A history of blackouts in America

By David E Nye
MIT Press, £20.95

The sheer number of blackouts in North America is surprising. Between 1984 and 2000 there were 11 incidents involving a loss of 4,000MW or more, equivalent to one every 18 months.

The technical and social history of this phenomenon, from the planned blackouts in wartime to accidents and voluntary 'greenouts', is a big subject and inevitably David Nye has to skip over some aspects which engineers would find particularly interesting. For example, the inherent instability of large electricity supply systems is mentioned, but Nye does not go into great detail on exactly what this instability involves.

'When the Lights Went Out' starts by looking at the early electricity supply schemes, where shortages and accidental electricity cuts were more or less expected. They were also easy to cope with as people were less reliant on electricity for everyday household tasks. As electricity became built into the infrastructure (and, in some cases, was the infrastructure) of people's everyday lives, blackouts became much more of a problem. They were also more likely to happen as demand rose and electricity supply schemes became larger and more complex.

By the 1960s and the great blackout of 1965, a cut in the electricity supply meant massive changes to the social order. People became more sociable in the blackout, they had parties and there were numerous tales of the unexpected kindness of strangers. In 1977 New York, it meant social disorder, looting and the threat of anarchy. Blackouts were inevitable and life-changing, if only for a short period of time.

Voluntary blackouts may have similar effects but can at least be planned for. Nye looks at the wartime blackouts and how people worked together to reduce the threat from obvious landmarks. The wartime blackout created a link between public electric lighting and peace and prosperity: the day the lights came back on was a symbolic victory. In more recent times, organisations have urged people to switch off the power voluntarily to save energy, the 'greenout'. Power companies may also impose rolling blackouts on their consumers to limit demand.

The story Nye tells is one of a culture increasingly dependent of electricity and having to deal with blackouts in different ways. Wartime blackouts meant people working together for the wider good. Accidental blackouts could be an excuse for a party in times of prosperity, or the trigger for social unrest in times of hardship. It is also a story of how the celebration of increasing power demand (more appliances, air conditioning as standard) became a problem in a world where energy resources are finite. Could switching off the power change from an annoying interruption to a way of life?

Reviewed by Anne Locker, IET archivist

Fordlandia: The rise and fall of Henry Ford's forgotten jungle city

By Greg Grandin
Icon Books, £14.99

In December 1991, the USSR - one of history's longest and least successful Utopian experiments - came to an end. By now, its traces are hard to find outside some remote areas of Russia and perhaps also Transdniestria - a maverick Soviet-style enclave on the territory of Moldova.

Yet, many other Utopian communities of the first half of the 20th century are still around - some in architecture alone (like Hampstead Garden Suburb in London and New Earswick in York), others - like Letchworth Garden City in Hertfordshire, where I happen to live, in many other ways too.

The latter - a favourite child of Ebenezer Howard, an idealistic thinker of the Victorian era - was the world's first Garden City boasting, among other features, the UK's first roundabout, dating back to 1909. Among other surviving 'model communities' are Celebration, Florida, conceived and designed by Walt Disney, and Radburn, New Jersey, founded in 1929 as an 'ideal town for the motor age'.

Similar to Letchworth's 'UK's first roundabout', the latter still features the USA's 'first cul-de-sacs' - the remains of the failed 1930s policy of separating traffic from pedestrians. A motorists' paradise that didn't quite work out'

The same can be said of Fordlandia - a Utopian community created by Henry Ford in 1928, when America's legendary car tycoon bought a tract of land in the Brazilian rainforest and set out to build a massive rubber plantation to produce tyres. Being a bit of a dreamer, he simultaneously tried to create a 'model American community' - complete with nice weatherboard family cottages, lawns, golf courses and lots of fulfilling social activities for its members.

The story of the conception, short-lived existence and the inevitable failure of this well-intentioned, yet doomed, project is beautifully recounted in this book by Greg Grandin - a professor of history at New York University. By the early 1940s, Fordlandia had turned into a scorched and ailing hell of a settlement - a cross between a slave-labour plantation of the pre-Civil War American South and an open-air brothel. Similar to Walt Disney and other famous 20th century dreamers, Henry Ford, who died in 1947, had to face up to the fact that making cars was much easier than building 'model' communities, bound to fail due to the sheer impossibility of generating 'model' humans. A powerful lesson which never seems to be properly learned.

The story of Fordlandia is ideal for a book and Grandin makes excellent use of it. My only disappointment is nearly total lack of references to other similar experiments of the 20th century (like those mentioned above), without which one cannot fully understand the extent of the tragedy of Fordlandia - one of America's and Henry Ford's failed dreams.

Reviewed by Vitali Vitaliev, E&T features editor

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