(Roughly) Daily

“Infrastructure is much more important than architecture”*…

.. much, much more important, as Debbie Chachra explains in a piece featured once before in (R)D. It’s excerpted here again, with special emphasis on our power grid…

We use exogenous energy every day to exceed the limits of what our bodies can do. Artificial light compensates for our species’ poor night vision and gives us control over how we spend our time, releasing us from the constraints of sunrise and sunset. So valuable is artificial light that it’s a reliable correlate of wealth and economic development: researchers use the growing brightness of regions over time, as quantified from satellite images taken at night, as a proxy measure—more resources, more light. The southern half of the Korean Peninsula and the ocean surrounding it is ablaze with light; while North Korea has just faint threads of light leading out from Pyongyang, a result of decades of imposed scarcity.

Energy in the form of mechanical work also replaces our body’s labour, from the domestic scale—all the technologies for textiles, for example, from spinning and weaving to sewing and laundry—to scales that are nearly impossible for human bodies alone, like building skyscrapers and bridges. And we use mechanical energy to move our bodies and ferry goods around: transportation. Exogenous energy also makes our living environments more comfortable; for a long time, this was mostly limited to heating, but in the twentieth century, the technologies of refrigeration and air conditioning became widespread. The newest uses of energy are telecommunications technologies—from Morse code to TikTok, they turn electrons into bits of information, facilitating human connections on a global scale.

In fact, this ability to access more energy than our bodies themselves can provide is—all but literally—baked into being a human. All cultures eat cooked food (and no animals cook their food). While it’s not required to survive, strictly speaking, heating food breaks it down, making the nutrients more bioavailable; in essence, the food becomes more nutritious. Learning to cook our food is thought to have been an important contributor to the development of our calorie-dense brains and all that followed, helping to free humans from the ongoing labour of foraging and eating that occupies most animals. But the near-necessity of cooking food then requires a different labour: for most women on most of the planet, obtaining fuel for cooking remains their primary daily occupation.

“Care at Scale”

How is that we in the U.S. have more-or-less abundant power? Brian Potter explains the evolution of our electric grid…

Abundant electricity is a defining feature of the modern era.  At the turn of the 20th century electrical power was a rare, expensive luxury: in 1900 electricity provided less than 5% of industrial power in the US, and as late as 1907 was in only 8% of US homes. Today, however, 89.6% of the world’s population has access to electricity (97.3% if you just consider urban areas), and Wikipedia’s “list of countries by electrification rate” has 123 countries sharing the top spot at 100% electrification.

Electrical service is considered critical in a way that’s different from most other services. Even a brief interruption in electrical power is considered a serious problem in industrialized countries where power outage durations are typically measured in minutes per year. To put this in perspective, the average yearly outage time in the US is around 475 minutes per year, which is considered especially unreliable despite representing ~99.9% uptime. By comparison, Germany averaged just 12.7 minutes of power outages per year in 2021—a remarkable 99.998% uptime.

Electricity’s transition from a luxury good to the foundation of modern life happened quickly. By 1930, electricity was available in nearly 70% of US homes, and supplied almost 80% of industrial mechanical power. By 1950, the US was tied together by an enormous network of high-voltage transmission lines…

The Birth of the Grid” (and Part Two) from @_brianpotter.

Keep an eye out for @debcha‘s forthcoming book, How Infrastructure Works.

* Rem Koolhaas


As we think systemically, we might recall that it was on this date in 1752 that Benjamin Franklin and his son tested the relationship between electricity and lightning by flying a kite in a thunder storm.  Franklin was attempting a (safer) variation on a set of French investigations about which he’d read.  The French had connected lightning rods to a Leyden jar, but one of their experiments electrocuted the investigator.  Franklin– who was, of course, no fool– used a kite; the increased height/distance from the strike reduces the risk of electrocution.  (But it doesn’t eliminate it: Franklin’s experiment is now illegal in many states.)

In fact (other) French experiments had successfully demonstrated the electrical properties of lightning a month before, but word had not yet reached Philadelphia.

The Treasury’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing created this vignette (c. 1860), which was used on the $10 National Bank Note from the 1860s to 1890s


Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 10, 2023 at 1:00 am

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