Kirkus Star


Steam, Electricity, and the Men Who Invented Modern America
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Business historian Klein (The Change Makers: From Carnegie to Gates, How the Great Entrepreneurs Transformed Ideas Into Industry, 2003, etc.) brings the steam and electrical power revolutions memorably to life.

The author enlivens the narrative in two ways. First, he tethers it to three industrial exhibits—the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia, the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago and the 1939 World’s Fair in New York—all occurring within the span of a lifetime, each neatly showcasing for the common man (and the general reader) the successive fruits of the power revolution and together linking the steam to the electric era. Second, he sprinkles lively portraits of the uncommon men responsible for the stunning transformation in the way we live: James Watt and the steam engine, Michael Faraday and the electromagnetic motor, Thomas Edison and the incandescent lamp. Klein also tells the story of Edison’s principal rival, George Westinghouse; the eccentric visionary Nikola Tesla; Samuel Insull, who figured out how to deliver electricity cheaply to the masses; and scores of lesser-known figures who played a significant role in the advancement of the technological revolution. In addition to his comprehensive discussion of the discoveries, inventions and improvements, Klein also explains the centrality of politics, finance and public relations to the development, marketing and widespread adoption of the many wonders coming from progressive workshops like Menlo Park. From steamships, locomotives and trolleys, to telephones, radios, record players and a host of household appliances, the era was packed with astonishing developments that came with dizzying speed. The author makes room for a few cautionary tales about the blessings of this new technology, about the rampant materialism it helped inspire and about the damage inflicted during the rush to the future. For the most part, though, the book is a paean to the genius of an age not long past and a tribute to the men who made—far more than any politician or statesman—the modern world.

An endlessly entertaining and informative treatment of a vast, sometimes difficult subject.

Pub Date: June 1st, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-59691-412-4
Page count: 560pp
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 2008


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