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No. 1327:
Electricity, Books, and Change

Today, let's look for parallels. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

A while ago I tried to get a handle on the computer revolution by asking what people had said about printed books thirty years after Gutenberg. There's a parallel, since we've now had integrated circuits that long, and we've had personal computers for 20 years.

What I learned about printed books was a disappointment. No one saw revolution coming. All anyone said in the 15th century was, "Gee whiz, can we ever make a lot of books with printing!"

Now I've just found a 1904 series on Electricity in Everyday Life. Electricity had come into general use twenty years earlier when Edison developed an electric power generation system for his new light bulbs. These volumes came out when electric power had been around about as long as personal computers have been today.

The author tries to treat all of electrical science and technology in 1700 pages. To set his stage he asks us to live one day with a modern city dweller. It's surprising to see how much electrical technology was already within grasp in 1904. The man goes to work on an electric trolley with a newspaper printed on electric presses. The paper got its news over telegraph, telephone, even radio. It picked up stock quotations written electrically on ticker tape. If the man's a policeman, he uses electric burglar alarms and looks forward to having pictures sent over telegraph lines. If he's a doctor, his work is being transformed by X-rays.

Then we realize that electricity is being used in three ways. Electric motors are widespread, and they're already taken for granted. Electric illumination is becoming a major issue. But the lion's share of examples reflect the new theme of communication: telephones, radio -- even an embryonic ability to send pictures. That's just how we see our electronic technologies serving us a century later. So what did this author miss?

He completely missed the concept of mass media. He saw communication serving individual needs, as they always had. He didn't see individuals being altered by the commonality of the new information flood. He didn't see society and attitudes bending to those new forces. He didn't seem to realize that electricity was just beginning to provide pictures that moved, and that moving images would become a powerful new force in our lives.

Those are the same kinds of forces observers failed to see coming after Gutenberg and the same kinds of forces we cannot see coming at us. Each new communication medium changes our values and then causes us to agree upon those values.

So what'll the new computer-fed communications do to us? They'll change our beliefs. They'll change the way we live and move and dwell together. They'll tear us apart and reassemble us. I'm optimistic that change will ultimately be for the better. But what it will look like, no one has ever been able to predict -- not in Gutenberg's day, not in 1904, and not now.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Houston, Edwin J., Electricity in Every-Day Life. Three volumes, New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1904.

I am grateful to Nancy Day, Linda Hall Library, Kansas City, for providing the Edwin Houston source.


One of the more fanciful of Edwin Houston's illustrations