restricted access Global Electrification: Multinational Enterprise and International Finance in the History of Light and Power, 1878-2007 (review)
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Global Electrification: Multinational Enterprise and International Finance in the History of Light and Power, 1878–2007. By William J. Hausman, Peter Hertner, and Mira Wilkins. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 510 pp. $80.00 (cloth).

While the histories of electrification and of the great electrical manufacturers are numerous, there are few studies of the role of finance in the process of electrifying the world. The story of the spread of electric light and power from its inception in North America and Western Europe is well established, but the sources and architecture of the massive investment required is much less understood. There have been few systematic attempts to examine all the different pathways of electrification as a global whole rather than as a series of national case studies, and none that has concentrated on finance. This ambitious book seeks to remedy this omission and provide a truly comprehensive account of the role of multinational finance in creating one of the pillars of basic infrastructure and providing one of the absolute necessities of modern life. This is a daunting task. The authors have to identify and unravel [End Page 306] the tangled web of corporate structures that harnessed the capital and effected the transfer of technology and managerial know-how. They have to compare and contrast vastly different scenarios to establish basic patterns of investment and development. They have to incorporate the vagaries of politics, both corporate and national, that made exceptions to every rule. Finally, they have to cover the great swathe of modern history from 1878 to 2007.

There cannot be three more qualified scholars to accomplish this task than Messrs Wilkins, Hausman, and Hertner. Their research interests make an excellent fit and their scholarship is well established and respected among the fraternity of economic historians. Like the entrepreneurs they study, the authors have exploited the international networks of knowledge and social ties to incorporate the work of many others in this book, which stands as a testament to the international cooperation of historians and economists. In addition to a twenty-page formal bibliography, nearly 130 pages of notes provide a detailed and learned bibliography of the work done on finance and electrification by scholars from every corner of the globe.

The structure of the book is chronological, beginning with the first great wave of globalization up to World War I, then following the established historical divisions of the interwar period and the years after 1945. Much of the first part of the book is taken up with a taxonomy of all the different combinations of capital and organization that made up the financial reach of the multinationals. This is heavy going but a necessary step in understanding how these complex systems worked. Then the narrative gains speed during the economic and political retrenchment of the 1930s with the rise of nationalism, which had an enormous effect on the financing and ownership of electric utilities. After 1945 the authors concentrate on what they term the domestication of electric light and power as countries eliminated the participation of foreign multinationals in their electrical infrastructure. By the time we reach the millennium and the beginning of a new century, the narrative is moving along at breakneck speed and providing only a thumbnail sketch of the return to privatization and utility restructuring in a chapter that the authors correctly title "Coming Full Circle."

The authors do an excellent job of clarifying the corporate webs of finance and make effective use of individual case studies, but the sheer volume of material tends to confine them to broad generalizations and constantly threatens to bury the intellectual thread of the book under an avalanche of confusing organizational explication. Like all good economists, they use statistics to tell much of the story, especially the process of domestication. They acknowledge that their table [End Page 307] titled "Foreign Ownership of Electrical Utilities," covering four time periods from 1913 to 1972, is "at the core of our study" (p. 4), but a close examination of the notes to this table in an appendix shows a high level of estimation and guess work. I have never been one to look down on an educated guess...