Event

Abstract: Richard Hirsh, a physicist and policy historian, will offer an unusual account of the way farmers, power companies, land-grant colleges, and the federal government approached the process of rural electrification since the 1920s.  Challenging the conventional narrative taught in American schools, Hirsh documents the significant roles played by unacknowledged actors, such as agricultural engineers at Virginia Tech, in pursuing research and educational activities that brought a new form of energy to farms. 

The talk will disparage the standard view of farmers as anti-modern, unsophisticated yokels who failed to appreciate novel hardware, such as renewable energy technologies and generator-battery combinations (now known as distributed generation systems).  Though giving credit to the federal government’s Rural Electrification Administration (created in 1935) for advancing the lives of millions of farm families, Hirsh suggests that an alternative to the Depression-era program may have yielded similar results.  The talk ends with a discussion of how a historical understanding of farmers’ attitudes toward technology may help us today as we try to increase the use of renewable energy technologies in rural settings. 

Speaker Bio: Richard Hirsh is a professor of History of Technology and Science & Technology Studies at Virginia Tech.  He holds a Master's degree in Physics and a Ph.D. in History of Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.   Though previously writing about astronomy performed from outer space (published as Glimpsing an Invisible Universe in 1983), Richard turned his attention to the recent history of electric utilities. 

In 1989, he published Technology and Transformation in the American Electric Utility Industry, a book that describes the technological, managerial, and cultural reasons for the industry's problems of the 1970s.  He has also worked as a consultant for the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, co-authoring a management history on the utility's "ACT-squared" energy-efficiency R&D project.  In 1999, he published Power Loss: The Origins of Deregulation and Restructuring in the American Electric Utility System. 

He continues to publish and speak on policy-related issues dealing with electric power systems, working with engineers, scientists, and policy analysts at Virginia Tech and other universities.  In an unusual twist for someone who focuses largely on contemporary policy-oriented concerns, Richard is writing a book on the largely neglected—but relatively successful—efforts to power up farms in the years before the federal government created the Rural Electrification Administration (in 1935).