David E. Nye. Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1999.

This whole "review" will be a pretty close paraphrase - it's more like notes than an evaluation.

The energies of conquest pushed back the Native Americans and had created a surplus of power. There were woods aplenty, and streams for water wheels everywhere. Tools, oxen, small mills, and ships contributed to the displacement of the Native Americans. Land was (and is) underdeveloped despite the millions of trees chopped down, fields cleared, stones hauled, gain harvested. Mills were fixed centers of energy producing nails, paper, wire, flour, textiles. To get truly concentrated power required precision in machinery (water turbines in the 1840s) and possibly, for those working in factories, a new kind of discipline. But industrialization of the American landscape was almost immediately accompanied by a literary backward-glance at the small self-sufficient farmers of colonial days. Thoreau's skepticism of factories and their consumers was voiced early in the process.

Coal and steam formed the basis for new and much larger cities. By 1900 London had 4 million people, and Chicago followed suit, rising from '50' in 1830 to 300,000 in 1870. Chicago extended its reach by rail and steamboat. Chicago had no natural water force: it was all steam and coal. Chicago grew past walking distance and used steam to power its cable cars and, later, coal for its Loop. Just as water had become more precise and powerful in turbines, so steam turbines were developed to meet Chicago's demand for energy.

Great corporations and systems were formed around power systems. Public debate ensued: who or what should have control over the energy technologies that had become daily necessities? The US government rejected overt socialist tendencies, upholding property and business rights, but decided to regulate its largest oil and coal monopolies to keep competition alive and protect the interests of the people as a whole. At the same time workers banded together (not very easily, it may be said) to fight for better wages and working conditions in these systems. Europe, by contrast, had weak corporations and much stronger labor unions. American corporations were consequently freer to test out labor-saving devices.

The advent of the assembly line fixed and focused power in a peculiar way: by tying the worker to a place along a moving belt, he or she was far less and less free to control the conditions of his labor. Many people continued to labor at home, and the putting out system never did die out. Child labor was slowly eliminated by social attention to the conditions of life for the poorest. Nye reminds us that Ford and Taylor applied the principles of efficiency to very different media: Ford to machines, and Taylor to humans as machines. Ford's method was far more efficient -- "Taylor saved time; Ford sped up time." (151) However, neither system was monolithic, or even representative, of American factories.

New American consumer goods embodied and used energy. (182) A family car, a telephone, a vacuum cleaner, a phonograph, and later, a refrigerator and washer - all these made the home a place of energy consumption. In the Great Depression, perplexing contradictions appeared everywhere: for instance, corn was too cheap for farmers to sell, and yet people in cities went hungry. No one had enough money, and yet the government wanted to raise prices. Both farmers and factories overproduced, and the capitalist system took a real theoretical hit. Yet for the very rich, this was a time of consolidation, and also of eliminating redundant workers. Energy was used to eliminate unskilled work and factories became more, and not less, rationalized. New avenues of work, new jobs, in the service sector and in the mass-culture and high-tech industries were required.

Post war Americans were wrapped in a technological cocoon of conveniences (215). The high-energy regime created miracle fabrics, fast food, larger houses, cheaper fuels, countercultures in TV and music. The growth of small groups has continued apace. The computer allows for interest groups independent of time or place. But work has not, paradoxically, slowed down. We are so well wired in that work blends into everything, and we are sufficiently linked to the world economy that we are now in competition with cheap and smart labor worldwide. Is another important shift in working life coming? Does rapid fashion change and 'sneakerization' drive the consumer economy? Do we still have enough energy to support our way of life?