Of the four fundamental physical forces that drive the universe—gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces—gravity is the one that has caused humans the most grief. Yes, it binds us to our planetary mothership and without it we could not exist. But it presents huge problems that plague us on a daily, hourly, basis. For the first ten or so millenia of human existence, humans overcame these daily and hourly problems by getting other humans, who were socially powerless, to do the heavy drudge work. Rich Roman households ran on slave labour. Running those, and building the Egyptian pyramids, to list just a couple of examples, were enormously labour-intensive, and that is because of gravity. A rich household does not run itself; somebody has to wash the clothes. (Try hand-washing your clothes some time: it is hard physical work.) A pyramid doesn’t build itself: somebody has to dig a foundation and quarry out blocks of rock; that involves lifting heavy earth and rocks and moving them somewhere else.
Roman households and Egyptian pyramids, monuments to civilization though they arguably are, were actually made possible by human slaves: people who, had they not been forced by other people to do it, would have done something else with their energy and their lives.
It was only the Industrial Revolution that changed that. The Industrial Revolution introduced mass mechanized production, in labour intensive industries like agriculture and textiles. This freed millions of people from the brutally degrading drudgery of unskilled manual labour, and led directly to rapid urbanization and the massive political upheaval of the French Revolution and “enlightened despotism”: two contemporary and competing ideas of how to deal with the newly urbanized roiling masses.
Technologically, the steam engine underpinned much of this, especially in the early to mid-1800s. But it was the electric grid that finally—after literally thousands of years of horrific forced servitude, in which man, daily, blithely demonstrated unimaginable inhumanity toward his fellow man—allowed humans to walk their enlightened talk.
Electricity is simply the electromagnetic force: in the form with which we are today most familiar, an electric current occurs when you spin a coil around a magnet. Get a machine, say a modern steam engine, to turn the coil and you can send enough low current high voltage electricity through wires to help millions of people, across great distances, to do work.
Then you can get the electromagnetic force to overcome the gravitational force when it comes to fetching water, which is perhaps the single most backbreaking and time consuming chore in our lives. We in the affluent west don’t realize this. But if, say, every Toronto resident had to manually fetch his daily quarter-metric-ton of water, he or she would have very little time to do anything else. And he/she would be dead of exhaustion by his or her mid-forties.
Ubiquitous electricity, made possible by alternating current which in turn made the grid possible, made physically possible the nearest semblance of household labour equality that humans have ever experienced. Electricity, brought to every household across the North American and European continents, freed humans in those continents from the ugly implications of the force of gravity.
Until our fellow humans in Asia and Africa get continent-wide grids of their own, they will continue to live in medieval drudgery.
Today is August 7, 2014. I have never lived a single one of my 53 years without the benefit of electricity. It appalls me that millions of Africans and Asians woke up this morning without it.
I have extolled the grid in the following previous articles.
- “The electric grid: the greatest invention of all time expanded after women won the vote”
- “Remembering the August 14 Blackout: street crime, comical interviews, and energy conservation”
- “Cities and power: revisiting Adam Smith’s division of labour”
- “Innovation, water, and energy: semi-conductors cannot defeat physics”
- “Energy growth and education go together: now, what produces the energy?”
- “Industrial strategy and cheap energy: why China is eating, and will keep eating, our lunch”