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The Industrial Revolution That Never Came

Since World War II new technological revolutions have been heralded many times. First there was the industrial revolution to be fostered by nuclear power; more recently the computer or information revolution began—if we take the word of the prophets. Space flight and underwater exploration of the “new ocean” are other favorite catalysts of a new era. The oracles of these revolutions have predicted dramatic technical and social changes whose basic features are by now familiar to readers of popular magazines: new kinds of automation, the rise of home and workshop industries, and even the greening of America.

Before World War II many serious scholars were in agreement that the Western world was entering a second industrial revolution (the first having been the British Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) based on electricity, the internal-combustion engine, and new materials made possible by low-cost electricity, such as aluminum and alloy steels. This sweeping idea peaked in popularity in the early 1920s.

The spread of electric-power networks seems to have been the major stimulus for this belief. After World War I many liberals and radicals showed a heightened interest in planning, public ownership, and government regulation of public utilities. Wartime governments had already introduced planning and control on an unprecedented scale, and shortages of energy had led to state funding and interconnection of large hydroelectric and coal-fired power plants. In the United Kingdom the Electricity Supply Act of 1919 encouraged the coordination and interconnection of private and public power systems. An electrification law enacted in Germany in 1919 called for the interconnection and nationalization of that nation’s electric utilities. In 1920 Lenin created the Commission for Elaborating the Plan for the Governmental Electrification of Russia. And in the United States a government-funded study recommended “Superpower” for the Northeast, advocating privately funded power plants of 60,000- to 300,000-kw capacity, to be interconnected by transmission lines of 110,000 to 220,000 volts.

The proponents of all these plans trumpeted the revolution big electrification would bring. Lenin’s enthusiastic prophecy has proved the most memorable: “Unless Russia is placed on a different technical level, higher than before, restoration of the national economy and communism are out of the question. Communism is the Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country, for without electrification progress in industry is impossible.”


The advocates of different electrification schemes around the world had various broad visions of social transformation. Several of these emerged in the United States. Among them, the planning and publicity surrounding the Pennsylvania Giant Power plan spelled out most visibly its aspirations. Giant Power was proposed by Gifford Pinchot, the governor of Pennsylvania, in 1925. It specified giant minemouth power plants in the western coal regions of Pennsylvania and high-voltage transmission lines to carry the power to the state’s heavily populated and industrialized east. Branch distribution lines would supply small cities and rural communities along the way. Giant Power ran into opposition from various interests and was never carried out, but the controversy surrounding it reveals how thoroughly committed its proponents were to the proposition that it could foster a social and industrial renascence.

Pinchot, a leader of the pre-World War I Progressive movement and an ardent supporter of Theodore Roosevelt, had invented the use of the word conservation to denote the scientific management of the environment. As governor of one of the most industrialized and heavily populated states, he eagerly envisaged a transformation as great in its effects as the British Industrial Revolution, displaying a technological enthusiasm equal to the most fervent we hear today among the prophets of the computer age. Furthermore, he took the prospects seriously enough to present them in 1925 in his message to the state’s General Assembly.

He argued that the power of steam had shaped, for better or for worse, the centralized industrial order and civilization of his day. Steam had ushered in prodigious increases in production, the rise of the urban complex, the decline of rural life, the decay of small communities, and the weakening of family ties. Nevertheless, steam “might well say of electricity, ‘One mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose.’ ” Society must now prepare for a greater revolution, guard against negative consequences, and be ready for opportunities of far greater magnitude than ever before.

The governor pointed out to the General Assembly that electricity could bring to the housewife the comforts of electric lighting, cooking, and other appliances and to the farmer the safety and convenience of electric lighting and power for milking, feed cutting, wood sawing, and countless other tasks. Furthermore, it could offer every worker a higher standard of living, more leisure time, and better pay. The electric-power revolution promised “to shower upon us gifts of unimaginable beauty and worth” and to form the basis “for a civilization safer, happier, freer and fuller of opportunity than any the world has ever known.” The day was coming, Pinchot prophesied, “when from morning to night, from the cradle to the grave, electric service will enter at every moment and from every direction into the daily life of every man, woman and child in America.”