A Brief History of Electrical Technology

by piero scaruffi | Contact/Email

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(Copyright © 2016 Piero Scaruffi and all pictures should be public domain)


During the 19th century, electricity puzzled physicists. It was clear that it didn't fit Newton's equations. A new science was required to explain the behavior of electromagnetic objects. An accidental by-product of those theoretical studies was one of the most dramatic economic and social revolutions in the history of the human race. First, electricity provided lighting and heating to cities, factories and homes, thereby changing habits and rhythms of life that had endured for millennia. Then it was used to automate household chores, such as cooking and washing clothes. Then it was used for transportation (e.g. the streetcar). Then it turned out to provide a whole new and powerful way to communicate (telegraph, radio, telephone). And finally it turned out to constitute a natural platform for computing. The transition from mechanical power to electrical power meant much more than more power. The history of the 20th century is largely the history of electricity.

This is particularly true of the USA, that became the world's superpower during the period of electricity. Robert Gordon's "The Rise and Fall of American Growth" (2016) shows that a host of new technologies and new industries (electrical, chemical, telephone, automobile, radio, television, petroleum, electronics) were born in a relatively short period and fueled the US economy of the 20th century: most of them were born because of the electrical revolution.

Technological innovation depends only in part on the creativity of scientists and engineers. It usually occurs and persists when the appropriate social, political and economic forces are in place. The engineers who invented the electrical machines were only one of the many categories that were responsible for the electrical revolution.

"Innovation" itself is a word that can be misleading. For example, David Edgerton's "Shock of the Old" (2007) shows that many of the most common objects have not changed in more than a century. The impact of innovation is also often not the one publicized by those who make it: Ruth Cowan's study "More Work for Mother" (1983) showed that new appliances, that were supposed to relieve women of household chores, actually increased the workload of women in the house. And, of course, things like innovation and progress are not necessarily good: Hitler's gas chambers were innovative and crack cocaine is highly innovative. Each vastly improved an old process (respectively, mass extermination and intoxication), but i don't consider either something that created a better world. Innovation is not inherently good.

  1. The Beginning
  2. The Office
  3. The Radio
  4. The Telephone
  5. Television
  6. The Computer
  7. Mainframes and Minicomputers
  8. The Integrated Circuit and the Arpanet
  9. Unix
  10. The Microprocessor
  11. Networking
  12. Power to the People


Arbib, Michael: "Computers and the Cybernetic Society" (1984) - Especially useful for computer networks
Aspray, William: "John von Neumann and the Origins of Modern Computing" (1990)
Auerbach, Isaac: "European Electronic Data Processing" (1961)
Bardini, Thierry: "Douglas Engelbart, Coevolution, and the Origins of Personal Computing" (2000)
Bashe, Charles & others: "IBM's Early Computers" (1986)
Beniger, James: "Control Revolution" (1989)
Bourne, Charles & Bellardo-Hahn, Trudi: "A History of Online Information Services 1963-1976" (2003)
Braun, Ernest & MacDonald, Stuart: "Revolution in Miniature" (1978)
Campbell-Kelly, Martin & Aspray, William: "Computer" (2004)
Campbell-Kelly & Garcia-Swartz, Daniel: "From Mainframes to Smartphones" (2015)
Ceruzzi, Paul: "Reckoners" (1983)
Ceruzzi, Paul: "A History of Modern Computing" (1998) - Especially useful for 1960s-80s
Chandler, Alfred: "Inventing the Electronic Century" (2005)
Connolly, James: "History of Computing in Europe" (1967)
Cortada, James: "Before the Computer" (1993)
DeLanda, Manuel: "War in the Age of Intelligent Machines" (1991)
Flamm, Kenneth: "Creating the Computer" (1988)
Heide, Lars: "Punched-Card Systems and the Early Information Explosion 1880-1945" (2009)
Henderson, Harry: "A to Z of Computer Scientists" (2003) - The best collection of biographies
Hey, Tony & Papay, Gyuri: "The Computing Universe" (2014)
Huff, Gosele & Tsuya: "Semiconductor Silicon 1998 Vol.1" (1998) - Especially useful for the history of the integrated circuit
Lavington, Simon: "Early British Computers" (1980)
Lojek, Bo: "History of Semiconductor Engineering" (2007)
Nelson, Lib: "Computer Lib" (1974)
Metropolis, Nicholas and others: "A History of Computing in the Twentieth Century" (1980)
Norberg, Arthur: "Computers and Commerce" (2005)
Parke-Hughes, Thomas: "Networks of Power" (1983)
Nebeker, Frederik: "Dawn of the Electronic Age" (2009)
Nye, David: "Electrifying America" (1990)
Orton, John-Wilfred: "The Story of Semiconductors" (2004)
Rao, Arun & Scaruffi, Piero: "A History of Silicon Valley" (2013)
Slade, Giles: "Made to Break - Technology and Obsolescence in America" (2006) - Interesting for integrated circuits
Stine, Harry: "The Untold Story of the Computer Revolution" (1985)
Wells, John: "The Origins of the Computer Industry" (1978)
Williams, Michael: "A History of Computing Technology" (1985) - The most detailed description of early computers
Yates, Joanne: "Control Through Communication" (1989)
Yost, Jeffrey: "The Computer Industry" (2005) - Especially useful for the 1970s and 1980s
Zuboff, Shoshana: "In the Age of the Smart Machine" (1988)

piero scaruffi | Contact/Email
Timeline of Computing | Timeline of A.I.
The Technologies of the Future | Intelligence is not Artificial | History of Silicon Valley
(Copyright © 2016 Piero Scaruffi)