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12 november 2010

Jane Brox's Brilliant is a synthetic book: it groups material drawn from many other sources into a meditation on (mostly) just one theme: how humans have coped with our helplessness in the dark, by means of technologies that import a little bit of daylight into the night.

For millenia, artificial light meant the open flame of candles or lamps. Technological advance was limited to better wicks, better reservoirs, better fuel. Electric light, the topic of most of Brox's book, was an advance not just in degree but in kind. For the first time, a practical source of light glowed without burning. (In some cultures, fireflies or even rotting fish had done that, but you can't illuminate an entire civilization with rotting fish.) Not only were electric lights flameless, but they were virtually carefree (just pop in a lightbulb and flick a switch), and their even quality allowed both domestic and industrial work (and play, and study) to flourish round the clock.

In discussing electric light, Brox necessarily has to discuss the electric grid, a phenomenon largely driven by lightbulbs. In these chapters, she drops the theme of light itself for pages at a time, though these digressions are well-motivated. Electric light was not only an invention with unprecedented practical qualities. It also involved a new social relation among its consumers. As Brox incisively points out, lighting technologies from tallow to whale oil to kerosene allowed individual households to provide their own light on their own (limited) terms. Electric power forced its users into mass relations of abstract supply and demand for an unstorable, ever-flowing resource. (Well, that or install coal-powered generators in their basements, an off-the-grid expedient that never caught on except among a few mad millionaires.)

Power grids, at first, separated the haves from the have-nots with extreme vividness. Middle-class urbanites enjoyed not only light on demand but push-button clothes-pressing, fans, and fridges. The city poor, and more prominently rural dwellers of all social classes, had no access to power in the early 20th century. Rural electrification (the topic of one of Brox's chapters) was the creation of extraordinary public/private initiatives begun during the Depression and New Deal.

Power companies from Edison to Enron, by their very capitalist nature, saw light as a commodity. New Dealers, like the TVA managers who powered up rural areas and the co-ops who financed the construction of a truly national grid, saw light as infrastructure. The infrastructure concept, though frustrating to corporate pirates who had to be content with the slow, unexploitable growth of utility stocks, was miraculous in its effects on the national economy. If everyone has affordable electric power just a socket away, you can sell everyone an appliance. America traded windfall profits in the electricity industry for unprecedented economic growth in others, all fueled by cheap power: lights, radio, TV, cooling, cooking, cleaning, heating, music, crafts, hobbies, you name it – in postwar America, people bought it because they could plug it in.

Such lavish power has its drawbacks, addressed by Brox in her later chapters. Light throws people and animals alike off the circadian rhythms we evolved to. It pollutes skies and wastes resources. Technology holds out promises of advances just as great as those of electricity over candlepower – carbon nanotube power lines, flexible LED lighting – but the political willpower to seek the necessary public-aided innovation and development is completely lacking in 21st-century America. Will it take another Depression, more drastic even than the current recession, to revive public/private energy partnerships like those that transformed our lives 70 years ago?

Brox, Jane. Brilliant: The evolution of artificial light. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2010.