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United States

Rube Goldberg and the Electrification of America 207

Hugh Pickens writes "Alexis Madrigal has an interesting essay in the Atlantic about the popular response of people in the 19th century to the development of the electric power industry in America. Before electricity, basically every factory had to run a bit like a Rube Goldberg machine, transmitting power from a water wheel or a steam engine to the machines of a manufactory but with the development of electric turbines and motors the public believed engineers were tapping mysterious, invisible forces with almost supernatural powers for mischief. 'Think about it,' writes Madrigal. 'You've got a wire and you've got a magnet. Switch on the current — which you can't see and have no intuitive way to know exists — and suddenly the wire begins to rotate around the magnet. You can reverse the process, too. Rotate the magnet around the wire and it generates a current that can be turned into light, heat, or power.' And that brings us back to Rube Goldberg, a cartoonist who was was shockingly popular in his heyday and whose popularity closely parallels the rise of electrification in America. 'I think Goldberg's drawings reminded his contemporaries of a time when they could understand the world's industrial processes just by looking. No matter how absurd his work was, anyone could trace the reactions involved,' writes Madrigal. 'People like to complain that they can't understand modern cars because of all the fancy parts and electronic doo-dads in them now, but we lost that ability for most things long ago.'"

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