- When They Hid the Fire: A History of Electricity and Invisible Energy in America by Daniel French
By Daniel French. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017. Pp. 250.
Although subtitled as a history of electricity, When They Hid the Fire is more a history of perceptions of and attitudes towards energy production and use. Daniel French provides a concise and interesting summary of energy use in the United States, structured around how the source and use of energy is understood in American culture—and how source and use have become gradually separated over time. This process started with steam power and was exacerbated by centralized electrical supply, with disastrous environmental consequences.
French's emphasis on the abstraction of energy—meaning the distancing, both physically and psychologically, of energy production from energy consumption—provides an interesting perspective on the spread of electricity, [End Page 1252] although he does not spend much time developing this. His other key argument is that American culture incorporated an attitude of "energy exceptionalism," which led Americans to expect unlimited energy use as a right, with no environmental consequences.
His seven chapters move quite quickly from the seventeenth century, with the arrival of the first English colonists, to the 1920s. The first four chapters cover wood, coal, concerns about smoke, and steam power. In these chapters, French's treatment of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries does not fully acknowledge or examine the impact of slave labor on American expectations regarding the availability of free sources of energy. The last three chapters focus on conceptions of electricity as a mystery "too complicated for the public to grasp" and the beginnings of electrification, including the increasing distance that centralized electrical supply created in the American mind between the consumption of electricity and its (still coal-fueled) generation (p. 86).
Methodologically, French chooses not to spend time exploring either consumer resistance to new technologies, particularly electricity, or how his topic fits within the related, broader theme of the persistence of older technologies alongside newer innovations. These could have enriched his treatment of the topic. His focus is also more on producers than on consumers, and we rarely hear users' voices. This feels like a gap, particularly because one of French's key aims is to identify how perceptions of energy were changing in American culture. To support this aim, French instead brings many examples from politicians. He also relies heavily on literary figures, an approach that reflects that of Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden (a key influence on this book). While these examples do support his points, it feels as though French is only examining "a" culture; he doesn't break down the complicated concept of culture/s or talk about the diversity of cultures within American society. He treats the idea of "American culture" as unproblematic. And indeed French's focus is firmly on the United States, and might have benefited from international comparisons (for example with Canada, where developments in hydroelectricity were being followed closely by observers in the United States).
French's main contribution to the extensive literature on American energy history is his ability to craft a provocative environmental narrative in a concise way, covering a long time period, and synthesizing a lot of relevant existing literature in the field. Although there is some use of historical newspapers and a couple of long lists of interesting patents to support points about technological innovations to control smoke or provide cleaner energy sources, these serve to illustrate his main points, rather than being the building blocks of his argument (p. 38, 56). He does not use many archival sources. It would have been interesting, for example, to see a closer analysis of the patents included in the book.
As French's book covers a lot of ground quickly in an accessible way, [End Page 1253] this makes it a good candidate for an undergraduate or introductory reading on the history of American energy technologies. The book will also be of interest to environmental and literary historians. It is engaging and invites international and cross-cultural comparisons...