Germany, 1888. Karl Steinmetz, a precociously smart twenty-year old student, quit the university town of Breslau with the police on his heels. Steinmetz had been caught up in the crackdown on the Social Democrats, then Europe’s largest socialist movement by far.
Soon after starting university, Steinmetz joined the socialist club, which was banned after affiliating with the Social Democrats. A previous round of arrests had hit a party newspaper, The People’s Voice, and he took over as editor. Soon afterwards, he wrote an article that was deemed inflammatory, and he had to flee arrest.
Steinmetz emigrated to the US, travelling steerage class (i.e. sleeping in the hold). He anglicised his first name to Charles, and soon found work at a small electrical firm in New York. He became an electrical engineer and by 1893, aged 28, had made a key contribution to the invention of alternating current (AC) transmission equipment, working out mathematical formulae essential to its construction.
The electrical industry was in its infancy: the world’s first power stations had been opened in London and New York eleven years before in 1882. This incredible technology made it possible to produce artificial heat and light of unprecedented quality, and to power new gadgets from irons and radios to fridges. It paved the way for automation of factories, and underpinned the communications revolution of telephone and telegraph. Within a few decades a world without it would seem unthinkable to people in the rich countries.
Steinmetz’s work on AC current was crucial to the system’s growth. With transformers and high-voltage AC transmission lines, electricity could travel long distances, and a patchwork of local networks could be unified into regional or national grids.
When the small company Steinmetz worked for, Eickemeyer, was taken over by General Electric, he moved into senior research jobs and ended up as the head of the engineering consulting department. But his glittering engineering career didn’t lead to him abandoning his socialist ideas. On the contrary, he wrote and spoke about how electricity networks would hasten the arrival of a socialist society.
Steinmetz believed that, because electricity can not be efficiently stored, the network’s expansion would inherently compel producers and consumers to cooperate collectively. This would more rapidly usher a socialist economy into being.
“Implied in this argument was a planned economy, run by technocrats who would engineer this cooperation, by deciding which utilities to interconnect and when industries should consume electricity”, wrote Ronald Kline, Steinmetz’s biographer.
Like many reformist socialists, Steinmetz thought that electrical networks, properly regulated by the state, could help to turn massive capitalist industrial corporations into socialist ones.
Back in Germany, and in Britain – where the welfare of urban workers had become a battlecry for many socialists, and liberals – the “municipal socialists” saw provision of electricity, along with e.g. water and sewage services, as a way for local government to constrain the power of private corporations.
But belief in the progressive potential of technology was in no way limited to the right wing.
Environmentalists see a devil and an angel on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s shoulder and it appears both are getting their way when it comes to New York’s energy future — although one will have to be more patient than the other.
This year’s annual Energy Information Administration conference started off on a somewhat positive note with a presentation by Dr. John Holdren, the Obama administration director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Holdren was clear in his presentation that the risks of climate change are real and deserve urgent action.
It’s not looking good for the global fossil fuel industry. Although the world remains heavily dependent on oil, coal and natural gas—which today supply around 80 percent of our primary energy needs—the industry is rapidly crumbling.
This is not merely a temporary blip, but a symptom of a deeper, long-term process related to global capitalism’s escalating overconsumption of planetary resources and raw materials.
Steve Knisely was an intern at Exxon Research and Engineering in the summer of 1979 when a vice president asked him to analyze how global warming might affect fuel use.
"I think this guy was looking for validation that the greenhouse effect should spur some investment in alternative energy that's not bad for the environment," Knisely, now 58 and a partner in a management consulting company, recalled in a recent interview.