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'Boardwalk Empire': Inventing The Electric Now

by Adam Frank
Jan 10, 2012

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Adam Frank

Rome wasn't built in a day but, relatively speaking, Atlantic City was. Over the last few weeks I've been catching up on season 1 of HBO's fantastic series Boardwalk Empire. While the show might appear to be about graft, liquor, violence, sex and exquisitely drawn characters (all set in my home state of New Jersey, naturally) there is another equally important topic laying just below the surface. Boardwalk Empire lays out the rapid invention of everything we now take for granted. Watching the show it's absolutely dizzying to recognize how quickly this machine life of instant communication, rapid transportation and the omnipresent electric frizzle of running current were assembled.

Boardwalk Empire opens just as prohibition is set to take effect. The horror of the world's first industrial-scale conflict (what we now call World War I) has just ended. There are cars everywhere but not paved "highways." You could watch movies but you could not listen to them. You could listen to music on a gramophone but not on the radio (the first station, Pittsburg's KDKA, goes on air in November 1920). You could use electricity to wash clothes but not to dry them. It's a world that stands, for the briefest instant, between two ways of organizing culture, two ways of being human. Within another decade or two America had stepped across the threshold of "modernity" and even the memory of that "other way" of seemed wiped out.

There is a scene in the first season where Nucky Thompson, the Atlantic City political boss, stares dejectedly at an electric toaster he bought for his hated father, and which the father never used. It's a telling moment. For Nucky the toaster was the height of modernism, a symbol of the new world. Electrical appliances were popping up like daisies in the 1920s and 1930s, altering every aspect of American life. Electric vacuum cleaners shortened the daily task of sweeping (and the more odious work of hauling carpets outside for beating). Electric mixers, like Sunbeam's inexpensive 1931 Mixmaster, eliminated the hand kneading of dough. With the advent of electric refrigerators, hauling heavy slabs of ice from the icehouse to the kitchen also faded into memory. Even intimate acts like shaving gave way to electrification as the first mass market shavers developed by Jacob Schick appeared in the early 1930s.

In 1920 less than 35 percent of all households had electricity. By 1940, that number doubled. In rural areas the number of households with electric power increased by a factor of almost 30 in the same time period. Electric power running to almost every home created a redistribution of work and time that was without precedent in all the long millennia that preceded it. With electric power running appliances, it was as if each family had the equivalent of a team of servants doing their vacuuming and their sewing, preserving their food, washing their dishes and, of course, cleaning and drying their clothes. Electric appliances reshaped the experience of daily time and created a new, mass-market vision of leisure.

What was true for electrification was also true for every other aspect of modern American life. Cars multiplied and roads were built for them to run upon. Planes began to fill the sky and airports where built where they could be launched and landed. Radio (and then TV) stitched distant cities together, allowing Seattle, San Francisco and Syracuse to experience the same prize fight, world series home run or election speech. It took just decades to build a world we now can't imagine not existing.

And that failure of imagination is the point.

With the discovery of cheap oil we had the power to multiply every effect while simultaneously multiplying our own numbers beyond limits that might have been imposed "naturally." It happened so fast that very few people ever asked, "Can this last?"

Now we are pretty sure it can't. Now we are challenged with rebuilding what was built 100 years ago using all we have learned in the last 30. "Sustainability" is not a political applause line, it is simply a recognition of the simplest of facts; the planet is only so big. So while we mostly seem unable to imagine a world that looks different from the one we inhabit now, it's an imaginative skill we will need to cultivate. The power of powerful fiction like Boardwalk Empire is that it lets us develop the imaginative capacity to see present day realities more clearly.

We built this reality very quickly. It should be understood that it can be unbuilt, purposely or not, just as fast.


You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and Twitter. His new book is About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang.

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