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Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology [NOOK Book]


Few today realize that electric cabs dominated Manhattan's streets in the 1890s; that Boise, Idaho, had a geothermal heating system in 1910; or that the first megawatt turbine in the world was built in 1941 by the son of publishing magnate G. P. Putnam--a feat that would not be duplicated for another forty years. Likewise, while many remember the oil embargo of the 1970s, few are aware that it led to a corresponding explosion in green-technology research that was only derailed ...
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Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology

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Few today realize that electric cabs dominated Manhattan's streets in the 1890s; that Boise, Idaho, had a geothermal heating system in 1910; or that the first megawatt turbine in the world was built in 1941 by the son of publishing magnate G. P. Putnam--a feat that would not be duplicated for another forty years. Likewise, while many remember the oil embargo of the 1970s, few are aware that it led to a corresponding explosion in green-technology research that was only derailed when energy prices later dropped.

In other words: We've been here before. Although we may have failed, America has had the chance to put our world on a more sustainable path. Americans have, in fact, been inventing green for more than a century.

Half compendium of lost opportunities, half hopeful look toward the future, Powering the Dream tells the stories of the brilliant, often irascible inventors who foresaw our current problems, tried to invent cheap and energy renewable solutions, and drew the blueprint for a green future.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Kirkus, 3/1/11
“Eye-opening micro-histories about American energy past, with an eye to the future...A well-told cautionary tale about the need for widespread renewable-energy production.”

Conservation, March 2011
“It’s refreshing to read a history book whose intent is to improve decisions in the present and near future…[An] able account of the very checkered history of green energy schemes in America…Madrigal has the best critique I’ve seen of the ‘appropriate technology’ philosophy promoted by my Whole Earth Catalog in the 1970s…[An] admirable book.”
Booklist, 4/1/11
“Madrigal rises above politics to review the surprisingly long and fruitful history of renewable energy in the U.S….He shows beyond a doubt that the past will lead the way to a greener future.”
Library Journal, 3/15/11
“Part history of America’s use of green technologies, part history of our relationship with that technology, and part hope for the future…On all these counts, the book is successful…Recommended for general readers with an interest in America’s past, present, and future relationship with green technology.”

, April/May 2011
“Madrigal manages—without any gonzo shenanigans—to engage and sometimes even electrify the reader with lean and jaunty prose, skillful storytelling, analytic theorizing, and a proficiency in factual gee-whizzery…He makes the dream of a perfect power source seem all the more urgent, nowthat we know for how long, and in how many past episodes, it’s been deferred.”, 3/28/11
“[An] absorbing, often astonishing new book…Rather than rehash well-understood problems or relitigate well-entrenched debates, Madrigal tells stories, unlikely, idiosyncratic stories, about real human beings…The book yields a continual sense of discovery, sometimes delight. Madrigal has produced a kind of anti-history: a chronicle of paths not taken, failed visionaries and cranks, near-misses and fiascos. Along the way there are lessons learned, but no Grand Theories or first principles. With epistemic humility that's rare in the green space, Madrigal picks through these events for observations about what seems to work and how we might avoid our past mistakes.”
Mother Jones (website), 3/29/11
“[Madrigal is] a master at autopsies of promising yet deceased technologies.”, 4/6/11
“[An] excellent new book...Madrigal shows that American policy toward green energy has been a mess, long before this new batch of Republicans went into Congress fixed on dismantling environmental protections.”
New YorkJournal of Books, April 2011“In a world reeling from the news of the nuclear plant failures at Fukushima, no book could be more timely than Alexis Madrigal’s Powering the Dream. Headlines filled with nuclear disaster and soaring oil prices have reignited the energy debate while news stories about alternative energy focus almost exclusively on the sexiest new technology. What’s lacking is contextual background and perspective. Powering the Dream provides that…This book is far from a dull scientific read. Mr. Madrigal is a storyteller. He seems naturally drawn to the drama of success and failure and the fascinating eccentrics and visionaries that taken part in the battle of energy technologies…Those who are concerned about the future of energy and the environment will find Powering the Dream a very informative and useful resource.”
Outside, May 2011
“Better batteries won't be enough to charge the future, argues Alexis Madrigal in the beautifully wrought Powering the Dream. With an eye to misfires in America's past…he astutely points to what it might take: technocrats wise enough to see that we need to reinvent not just our technology but our relationship with it.", 4/15/11
“[This book] may jolt many environmentalists…Madrigal’s survey of our past failures to get renewable energy off the ground is endlessly provocative.”, 4/11/11
“Madrigal's tour of the forgotten history of green technology is more than just an entertaining jaunt back through time…The history he documents is instructive to our current energy policy debate.”, 4/14/11
“Madrigal seems to understand better than most writers on this topic that capitalism itself can be the great growth engine producing better and greener technology…Madrigal’s willingness to consider the many green-tech attempts of the past, most of them failed but so many of them fascinating, is a refreshing change from the doomsday scenarios so common in alternative-energy writing…His belief that solutions can be found, and that the past may hold the key to coming up with a better future, is salutary and most welcome.”, 4/20/11
“Personable and engaging…Refreshingly, it’s not a depressing, we’ve completely screwed up the planet kind of book. There’s an optimism that shines through...In the end, Madrigal writes a book that works on many levels. While not particularly scholarly, his simple statements…do ask audiences to think critically, his chapter openings are catchy, and his optimism gives readers hope that it’s not too late to find greener technologies.”

Internet Review of Books, 4/22/11

“A wonderfully interesting book, and while it may be in parts a cautionary tale about unintended consequences, it is also a valuable history lesson. And the depth of research is astounding, especially as the author connects information to illustrate how nearly all-things-energy came to be…While addressing readers in every-day language, Madrigral's index and bibliography (each with more than twenty pages of listings) provides evidence of the breadth of his scholarly research and the validity of his historical references…Madrigal also does an excellent job in outlining the characters behind technical innovation…To finish Powering the Dream is to find oneself optimistic, pessimistic, a bit cynical, and nursing a small flame of hope that the same hubris, ambition, and the desire to live a better life for ourselves and our children that got us into this mess will get us out.”

St. Petersburg
Times, 4/17/11
“Madrigal records a century and a half of American energy innovation—such as electric taxicabs in 1900—and imagines the future.”

, 4/20/11
“Madrigal skillfully uses stories from the past to illustrate both the follies and successes of the present. In doing so, he places some of the environmental madness we’re experiencing now in perspective.”
HudsonValleyNews, 4/20/11
“Inspiring…The first book to explore both the forgotten history and the visionary future of America’s green-tech innovators.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer, 5/1/11“Well-thought-out ideas about how to advance low-cost green technology.”
Print, 5/10/11
“A quiet page-turner that anyone concerned with our future energy policy—or lack thereof—should read…Madrigal is a talented wordsmith and astute researcher with an eye for ferreting out the ‘need-to-know’ minutia in a complicated world of energy giants, green pioneers and international trading markets.”
Blog Business World, 5/8/11
“[An] eye opening and very engaging book…A celebration of the spirit of innovation and its many successes and failures…Well researched…Fascinating and thought provoking…This book will change the way you think about green technology, and its past, present, and future.”

Ode, June 2011
Quirky stories about individuals whose past inventions, often failures, anticipated many contemporary environmental solutions.”
Reference and Research Book News, June 2011“This history of green energy in America showcases the grand experiments, both successful and failed, that have broadened our cultural relationship with sustainable power over the past century.”

“Politics & Patriotism,” Stitcher Smart Radio Network, 3/20/13
“A slice of history that we don’t know as well as we should, combined with an intellectual argument for a new push to improve alternative energy systems…Powering the Dream is educational in ways that may surprise you.  It’s a good conversation starter.”   

Phi Beta Kappa’s Key Reporter, 5/24/13
“Presents the history, not often told, of the failures as well as some successes of past ventures into solar and wind energy… Madrigal opens a window into the past that will be equally appealing to historians and to all those concerned with technology and how it affects our environment.”

Library Journal
Madrigal (former staff writer,; senior editor and reporter, offers a volume that is part history of America's use of green technologies, part history of our relationship with that technology, and part hope for the future. As a history of individual technologies, the book details our nation's brief forays into the use of wind, wave, and solar energy, exploring, for example, the use of DIY windmills in the 19th-century American West. As a history of green technology in America, it highlights the stories of people who placed more value on making the world a better place for humans—on developing clean, safe energy alternatives—than on preserving some pristine state of nature. And as hope for the future, it presents the stories of those working to improve society in a way private enterprise seems unable to do. VERDICT On all these counts, the book is successful, although serious historians of technology or American environmentalism will find it lacking in detail and analysis. Recommended for general readers with an interest in America's past, present, and future relationship with green technology.—Jon Bodnar, Emory Univ. Lib., Atlanta
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780306819773
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press
  • Publication date: 3/29/2011
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 400
  • File size: 520 KB

Meet the Author

Alexis Madrigal is senior editor and lead technology writer for and an award-winning former staff writer for He is a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, and a regular guest on NPR. He lives in Washington, D.C
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction 1

I The Dream of a More Perfect Power 7

1 Profit, Salvation 9

2 The First Green-Technology Futurist 13

3 The Utopia Commercial 17

4 Prescribing for the Globe Itself 22

II What Was 31

5 Steam-Powered America 33

6 The Wind and the West 35

7 The Parable of Petrolia 48

8 Wave Motors and Airplanes 53

9 Compressed Air and Electricity 62

III What Might Have Been 69

10 The National Electric Transportation System That Almost Was 71

11 Solar Hot Water, Day and Night 84

12 The Solar Home of the 1950s 90

13 The Solar Energy Research Institute 103

14 The Meaning of Luz 117

15 How to Burn a Biological Library 137

IV Lessons From the Great Energy Rethink 145

16 What Happens When an Energy System Breaks 147

17 Thermodynamics 152

18 Transcendentalism 169

19 Tools 181

20 Technology 191

V Innovation and the Future 199

21 Google's RE 201

22 The First Megawatt and Failing Smart 208

23 What Green Tech Can Learn from Nuclear Power's Rise and Fall 221

24 The 5-Cent Turbine and the Siren Call of the Breakthrough 235

25 Energy Storage and the Return of Compressed Air 253

26 "Throw Software at the Problem" 260

27 Rehumanizing Environmentalism 274

Notes 289

Bibliography 315

Index 347

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