In Praise of Electricity
Indeed, improvements in technology were so important that the one chapter Bryson devotes to something other than a room in the house or a physical area in or around the house is his chapter on the fuse box. Electricity truly revolutionized life. Bryson writes, “The world at night for much of history was a very dark place indeed.” A good candle, he adds, “provides barely a hundredth of the illumination of a single 100-watt lightbulb.” Although Bryson makes a good case for how important lighting was and is, he would have made an even stronger case had he drawn on the pathbreaking work by Yale University economist William D. Nordhaus. In a study done in 1996, Nordhaus found that failure to adjust appropriately for the plummeting cost of light has led economic historians to dramatically understate the growth of real wages over the last 200 years. That one invention, plus many others, led to a burgeoning middle class.
This is from David R. Henderson, “Home Economics,” Policy Review, February 1, 2011. It’s my review of Bill Bryson’s excellent book At Home: A Short History of Private Life.
For some reason, I’ve been appreciating electricity more lately. When our power came on at about 5:00 p.m. last Friday, we had already rented a motel room. My wife and my visiting daughter stayed there and I went home from the motel to feed the cats. The electricity gave me a lot of energy, so to speak, and I moved around the house, tidying things up and putting lanterns away, as if I had the energy of a 20-year old.
There’s probably more to say, but that’s it for now.
Mar 22 2023 at 9:21am
Glad you got your electricity back! I’m now imagining a wave of vigilante tree cutters taking out the most risky and vulnerable trees.
Mar 22 2023 at 12:24pm
Something like that happened in my hometown growing up. We had a hurricane hit and many people were without power for a long time because of downed lines. An effort to cut and prune trees was quickly squashed because of the town’s conservation board. The board is mainly made up of the weathy residents of the town who winter in Florida.
So, we did what all blue-collar Massachusetts citizens do: wait for the obstructionist snowbirds to leave and then do what we want. They left in October and come back in June to pruned trees.
Richard W Fulmer
Mar 23 2023 at 10:36am
Too many people have “privileged” beliefs – that is, ideas that one can hold only so long as someone else is keeping the lights on and taking out the trash.
Mar 22 2023 at 12:43pm
I empathize. After Hurricane Ike, we were without power for 14 days. The first few days were amusing because people were having cookouts with their food before it went bad. It was like a multi-day block party. Then we all had to get back to work. Getting up and getting ready for work in the dark isn’t much fun.
A couple of months later, I was at a local festival when someone asked me to sign a petition to get the power lines buried. When I asked her how much it was going to cost, she got indignant and insisted that we shouldn’t have to pay for it. I told her that someone was going to have to pay and until I knew much it was going to cost me, I wasn’t going to sign.
It’s been almost 15 years and we still haven’t buried the lines. We haven’t had anything like that happen again, but my power goes out anywhere form a few seconds to a few hours almost every month. We have battery backups all over the house. I’ve gotten good at de-soldiering the speakers on them so them don’t all beep when the power is out. It’s annoying, but it’s just part of life here.
Mar 22 2023 at 2:18pm
Totally agree. Some things are hard to measure.
We have an automatic feeder for our cats. If the power went out for a long time and we were not here they would panic. We have a back up plan for when we travel but they would miss the 6 AM feeding.
Mar 23 2023 at 12:06am
A cat feeder is probably a pretty low-energy piece of equipment. (On just a few minutes, just a few times a day, right?)
Wouldn’t a relatively small 6V or 12V battery last many months?
Mar 23 2023 at 12:42am
There was a time in which cats were able to feed themselves. There was a lot of “cat dignity” on that.
What have we done to cats?
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