This article was written by the frankly inspiring Carolyn Dougherty, and was originally published in SteamPunk Magazine #5. It’s tantalising glimpse at the idea that how we think and feel about our societies affects the kinds of technologies we develop, and how changing cultural values can lead to different technological choices.
Lord Dr. Richard von Tropp’s excellent article in SteamPunk Magazine 3 moved me to share a few thoughts on the vagaries of technological change. We tend to describe it as an almost predetermined progress, a straightforward evolution from less complex to more complex and from less efficient to more efficient. If we look more carefully at how technologies develop, however, we discover anomalous narratives that refute this model.
In order to capitalise on his invention of the incandescent light bulb, in the early 1880s Thomas Edison built a network in New York City to distribute direct current (DC) electricity. As Edison considered electrical power an urban technology, the fact that this network required substations every couple of miles to transmit the current was not a drawback. At about that time, after witnessing a demonstration of Edison’s inventions, George Westinghouse also decided to invest in electrical distribution. As he could not infringe on Edison’s patents, he developed an alternating current (AC) network based on two patents held by Nikola Tesla.
Unlike DC, AC could travel long distances without loss of power, but it required transformers to be used safely, a point which Edison stressed in a relentless publicity campaign known as the Battle of the Currents (which you can read about in SteamPunk Magazine 2). Although Edison was backed by JP Morgan and other financiers, Westinghouse’s system prevailed after he won two major projects—the production of electricity at Niagara Falls and the supply of electricity to the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. By the early 20th century AC had become the new standard, though DC remained in use until 2005, when Con Ed cut off DC service to its remaining 1,600 customers (all in Manhattan). New technologies have since been developed that allow DC power to be transmitted over long distances; such technologies are now used to transmit electricity through undersea cables, or when connecting power systems between countries with different AC systems. However, since AC is now the standard for power distribution, this DC power must be converted back to AC before use.
Technological determinists explain the adoption of AC in technological terms–AC current can be transmitted over long distances and DC current can’t; while this is true, it is simply a statement of fact, not an objective measure of superiority. The actual explanation for the adoption of AC is due to cultural factors. At the time of the Battle of the Currents, industrialists were in the process of creating monopolies, including regional electrical monopolies, and consolidation was the word of the day. Decentralised and localised DC networks were at odds with the business philosophy of the time. AC also conforms to our current values and priorities. Because we use AC we can build electrical power stations far from where electricity is used, so that we can remain unaware of the extent of their pollution, and we don’t object to defacing the landscape with transmission lines. If we’d adopted DC, urban form and culture could have been very different. A power station on every block may have caused us to consider less polluting sources of electricity. Local operation and maintenance of small-scale generators might have given rise to more unified and integrated communities. Power produced locally might have led to more appropriate and thoughtful electricity use, and to more diversity and a better balance among power sources.
Everyone knows now that petrol powered automobiles are far superior to electric or steam powered vehicles. Electric cars are slow and heavy, and have only a limited range of travel. Steam cars are slow to start, complicated and dangerous. But it doesn’t appear that we knew that 100 years ago; in 1900 American car companies made 1,681 steam, 1,575 electric and 936 petrol powered cars, and in a poll conducted at the first National Automobile Show in New York City respondents favoured electric cars as their first choice, followed closely by steam.
The steam car is of course the oldest of the three competing technologies, the first reported example having been built by Nicholas Cugnot in 1769. The electric car also predates the petrol car; in 1839 Robert Anderson of Aberdeen built the first electric vehicle, and an electric taxi was running in England by 1886. The Electric Vehicle Company, founded in New York City in 1897 and later expanding to other major metropolitan areas, was the largest vehicle manufacturer, and the largest owner and operator of motor vehicles, in America. The company owned and operated its own vehicles, using the business model of a livery stable in which the owner feeds and maintains its vehicles and power sources. It saw itself as selling mobility rather than vehicles, and planned to operate electric taxis as part of a larger transport network including electric streetcars and buses. Significantly, this idea of selling a service rather than an object developed at the same time that electrical utilities began to sell power rather than motors.
Electric cabs found a niche in the existing horse-based transport system. They were quicker and quieter than horsedrawn vehicles, and could do more miles in a day, particularly in adverse weather. In purely technical terms, electric power was clearly superior to internal combustion for both taxi and freight delivery service. Before the invention of electric starter motors, internal combustion engines were difficult to start, and expensive to keep running while idle, and thus not suitable for stop and start operation. Electric vehicles were more reliable, and their lower top speeds kept drivers from abusing or damaging them. The drawbacks of limited operating range and the high cost of batteries were being addressed by city utilities, which began to develop a network of battery exchanges.
But despite all the factors in its favour, and despite the support of electrical utilities, the electric car lost ground to the internal combustion car between about 1900 and about 1920. David Kirsch, in The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History, suggests many reasons for this decline in support, including the poor business practices of utilities and electric vehicle manufacturers, uncertainty over the market electric vehicle manufacturers were targeting (luxury, touring or commercial), bad press (the reasons for which are still unclear), and the general economic instability of the time. Historians have also suggested that the demand for internal combustion trucks during World War I, due to the military’s prioritisation of speed and range over reliability and quiet operation, and the identification of electric cars with women played a role in customers’ changing preferences. Internal combustion cars began to dominate the vehicle market long before Henry Ford’s assembly lines began producing them in quantity in 1913; by 1914 of the more than 568,000 motor vehicles manufactured in America, more than 99 % were petrol powered.
Such stories help us understand that choice among competing technologies has less to do with the objective efficiency of the victor than with the ways in which it conforms to the values of the culture within which it is embedded. Which brings us to the airship and the airplane. As we know, the first primitive one-person airplanes were falling out of the sky at about the same time airships were transporting hundreds of passengers safely across the Atlantic and around the world. But the reasons for the former’s current triumph over the latter seem fairly clear: the airplane appealed to the American’s (particularly the American investor’s) sense of individualism and adventure (Charles Lindbergh was not only a record-setting pilot but an ardent advocate of the airplane and of airport construction) and the airplane proved to be more useful in war.
But if we can come to recognise how certain technologies mesh with certain cultures and institutions, is it not possible for us to reassess our current choices, and to consciously choose technologies that conform to our cultural values? What sort of culture, for example, would choose the airship over the airplane? A culture, perhaps, that values the physical environment. The infrastructure required for an airship is a fraction of that required for an airplane; one needs only to stand on an empty airport runway (something I’ve done on occasion in my professional capacity) to appreciate the fact that millions of acres of our planet have been covered with more than a foot of concrete, just to provide a smooth and safe surface for these machines. An airship terminal? Grass, maintained by flocks of sheep. Airships can transport people and freight without roads, railways, bridges or airports, avoiding the destruction of habitats or the damaging of wilderness environments.
A culture that values the wise and restrained use of resources. Aside from the savings in the construction and maintenance of infrastructure, an airship uses a fraction of the amount of fuel that an airplane requires just to keep aloft. An airship can even power itself, producing enough electricity from solar cells installed on its envelope to meet its minimal energy requirements.
A culture that values safety. It is enlightening to ask people if they know how many people were killed in the Hindenburg explosion (the answer is 35, out of the 97 people on board, and one person on the ground). Despite the popular misconception arising from this incident, airships are far safer than airplanes. An airship is very unlikely to crash, even in the event of an engine malfunction or any but the most serious compromise of its lift cells. Many airships did crash—the United States Navy managed to destroy four of its six airships, and one of Britain’s two first airships, the R-101, crashed on its first voyage—but analysis of these accidents indicates that they were caused by adverse weather, and satellite and communications technology can now do a far better job of predicting the weather than even the most experienced airship captain of the 20th century.
Is this our culture? It seems not. Do we want it to be? I think some of us may. Could it be? Perhaps. We don’t need to adapt our culture to our technologies. We don’t need to accept the technologies we have today, with unconscious cultural baggage attached. We can think consciously about the values we prioritise, and the values we wish to prioritise, and adopt technologies that are in line with these values.