University of Minnesota
School of Physics & Astronomy

Physics and Astronomy Calendar

Friday, February 19th 2016
Speaker: Richard Hirsh, Department of History, Virginia Tech
Subject: Shedding New Light on Rural Electrification: The Neglected Story of Successful Efforts to Energize Farms in the 1920s and Early 1930s
Refreshments served at 3:15 p.m. Co-sponsored with the Institute for Advanced Study.

Traditional histories of rural electrification usually glorify New-Deal efforts of the 1930s to bring electricity to farmers, enabling them to enjoy modern amenities like their urban cousins. Though not disparaging the productive work pursued by the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), created in 1935, this talk challenges the standard narrative by highlighting extensive electrification efforts undertaken in the 1920s and early 1930s by utility companies, farmers, and previously unrecognized agricultural engineers. Working at land-grant colleges, such as the University of Minnesota, these academic engineers served as intermediaries between farmers and utility managers, and they helped quadruple the number of rural homesteads that obtained electricity in the years between 1924 and 1931. (Not incidentally, the first rigorous experiment to determine how to electrify farms occurred in Red Wing, Minnesota, managed by UM agricultural engineer, Earl A. Stewart.)

The talk will also include an explanation of why the traditional historiography of rural electrification has remained so prevalent and popular. It suggests that historians may have paid inadequate attention to the context of the pre-Depression era, when government rarely became involved in enterprises undertaken largely by business organizations. More significantly, perhaps, historians found the standard narrative appealing because it contains colorful characters and a good-versus-bad storyline.

The weekly calendar is also available via subscription to the physics-announce mailing list, and by RSS feed.