Seeking a nonfiction book about how private resources become utilities
June 3, 2016 11:53 AM   Subscribe

People who wanted water used to have to live near a well. Businesses that wanted to use electricity had to generate their own, so they had to be located near mills. I read a book about this.

The idea is that eventually, these things that everyone needs become more centralized, and to get them, all you have to do is hook into the grid.

The book I read was talking about this stuff as a background to some broader business context.

Even if you know of a good resource about this phenomenon in general, and it's not the book I'm looking for, feel free to mention it.
posted by bingo to Technology (9 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Carbon Democracy by Timothy Mitchell talks a lot about power distribution and how it relates to public/private spheres of interest.
posted by odinsdream at 12:30 PM on June 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Braudel's _Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century_ covers the *early* part of this more than the utility hookups. Spain's _How Women Saved the City_ covers services (like garbage pickup) more than piped utilities. Neither are exactly the book you're thinking of, but they're both great and related to the public/private/post-subsistence shift.

Oh, and very possibly Elinor Ostrom's books.
posted by clew at 12:35 PM on June 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

guns, germs, and steel?
posted by kbanas at 12:58 PM on June 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Businesses that wanted to use electricity had to generate their own, so they had to be located near mills.

This is not a very good example of the phenomenon you are talking about because the growth of the electric industry doesn't follow this pattern. The whole thing went from zero-to-sixty in about ten years.

That's because of the "War of Currents" between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. Early on, electricity was generated locally (by burning coal, mostly, and very rarely from mills) and distributed locally because it was Edison's DC system, and a user had to be within a mile or so of the generation plant. In turn, the generation plant was relatively small because it could only sell its power within a relatively small area.

Westinghouse believed that AC was superior because you could use transformers to step up the voltage and step it back down again. Because of the laws of physics (specifically Ohm's Laws) long distance transmission of electric power was practical with AC but not with DC, so Westinghouse's system permitted construction of extremely large generation plants with distribution over very large areas, with immense gains in economic efficiency because of economy of scale.

Edison's first generation plant was built in 1882. Westinghouse built his first plant in 1886. Edison threw in the towel in 1892 and the Edison Electric Company began to switch to AC. Westinghouse built the first really big hydroelectric generation facility at Niagara Falls in 1894. And it grew from there.

Early on the primary use of electricity was lighting; it wasn't until there was largescale generation and widescale distribution that other uses became more common. So your phenomenon seems to be that demand causes increases and concentration of supply, but in the case of electricity it's exactly the opposite: once electicity generation and distribution became widespread, demand picked up.

Also, initially it was primarily home users who consumed electricity, not companies.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:13 PM on June 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Water distribution doesn't really follow your pattern either. The Romans were masters of city planning and their cities had centralized water distribution from aquaducts and carefully-designed sewage drainage.

That technology fell with everything else the Romans did and for more than a thousand years water had to come from wells or streams or rivers, even in major cities, until the 19th Century even in cities like London. What brought about the change wasn't increases in demand, it was Cholera. It was finally determined that the cholera epidemic that ravaged London was caused by contamination of well water with infected human sewage. And as a result, the major cities of Europe and the United States centralized water distribution and sewage treatment during the last half of the 19th Century because it was the only way to stop cholera epidemics.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:30 PM on June 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Chocolate Pickle: Thanks for your insights. I'm sure you're right about everything. I was just remembering, in a very general way, the idea that it used to be necessary to actually be close to the source of water or power that you were using.
posted by bingo at 3:37 PM on June 3, 2016

I remembered the name of the book. It's The Big Switch, by Nicholas Carr.

But I will also check out the books and pages referenced in the answers above. And others are fee to add more.
posted by bingo at 3:38 PM on June 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

And others are fee to add more.
No, we paid our fee to the centralized content distributor already, thanks.

Can't recommend a book, but it occurs to me there'd likely be writing along these lines regarding the uptake of electric cars versus charging point availability or something.
posted by quinndexter at 5:01 PM on June 3, 2016

This might not exactly answer the question, but 'Niagara: A History of the Falls' by Pierre Berton goes into Sir Adam Beck's personal crusade to make electricity a public service in Ontario.
posted by ovvl at 6:32 PM on June 3, 2016

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