- The Grid: Biography of an American Technology by Julie A. Cohn
In the introduction of The Grid: Biography of an American Technology, author Julie A. Cohn posits that "within a growing body of literature about electrification … the grid gets a short shrift" (p. 1). A possible reason for this is that the electrical grid is incredibly complicated and is much more than just the wires and poles that are part of our now-natural landscape. In short, the grid is not an easy thing for a historian to take on. Despite the challenge, Cohn has traced an immensely complicated history and has broken it down into a palatable narrative that is a welcome epilogue to the classics such as Thomas Hughes's Networks of Power and David Nye's Electrifying America.
Arguing that both social and technical control was central to the project of building the grid, Cohn gracefully backs up her thesis in a well-organized and well-researched narrative. Reminding us that the grid is the world's largest interconnected machine, Cohn sheds light on the technical challenges of interconnectivity, yet at the same time reveals the disjointed nature of policy and control. The book's claim that the grid is an example of how American technology is peculiar is well argued, especially when considering the convoluted intersections between private enterprise, public control, and government regulation. After reading Cohn's work, one begins to marvel at the fact that the grid works as well as it does in the midst of the historical dance between government, industry, and public cooperatives.
Cohn begins with the birth of the grid and the well-worn story of AC and DC, while expertly weaving in the backstory of operations, making the reader appreciate the ingenuity of engineers and operators who tackled the challenges of load factors while ensuring reliability. As the demand for power became insatiable in the early 1900s, the need for central control and coordination became obvious, especially during the war years. Regardless [End Page 975] of the grand plans for national "Superpower" and "Giant Power" systems, private holding companies kept control. By the 1920s, it became clear that the grid would remain a hodgepodge of investor-controlled interconnected systems as local and state governments made deals with the likes of Samuel Insull to exchange the regulation of rates for monopolistic control of regional markets. Cohn's treatment of the contests for control of power transmission in the dawn of the twentieth century makes it clear why we do not have a centralized smart grid today and likely never will.
While federal agencies contributed to electrification and introduced new capacity through federal dam and transmission projects under the New Deal and the TVA, the technical challenges of interconnected systems grew. With the controversies brought about by the establishment of the Federal Power Commission in the 1960s, the struggle between public and private control continued, and Cohn is clear that the divided authority in the grid was its biggest weakness, a fact that became evident on November 5, 1965, when the Northeast blackout occurred. As with any hidden functions, the complicated nature of our infrastructure only comes to light when it fails, and despite a multi-year effort by Congress to increase reliability through legislation, nothing was accomplished as issues of increased demand and environmental policy took the center stage.
It is clear from Cohn's work that the entity we commonly refer to as "the grid" is not a single system. It is also clear that Cohn's original argument, that the story of the grid is more than a story of technology but is a story of cooperation, is spot on. While both the development and weaknesses of the grid are off the radar screens of American society, Cohn makes us realize that the reliable power we take for granted was not a fait accompli.
Dan French is an assistant professor of humanities at Mercy College of Ohio and an adjunct professor of business history at the University of Toledo. He received...