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Reviewed by Kieron Murphy

cover image, dawn of electronic age

The years 1914 to 1945 represent an irrevocable turn toward modernity, understood as the optimistic view that through science and technology, human beings could reshape the world for the good of all. Paradoxically, the defining feature of the era was a global economic collapse bookmarked by two world wars. In Dawn of the Electronic Age: Electrical Technologies in the Shaping of the Modern World, 1914 to 1945, historian Frederik Nebeker argues that when people aim to reshape the world with new sources of power, they should know that there will be pitfalls.

Nebeker takes a running start with the construction of the Panama Canal, the largest project of its time. Finished in 1914, it was a landmark of human ingenuity, integrating all the technologies of the day.

His purpose is to immerse his readers in the modern era and what made it such a profound turn: its synergy with all aspects of life. He writes that this was a period in which, despite constant troubles, "people felt optimistic and expected an age of social progress, with increased material prosperity, better education, wider appreciation of arts and literature," as well as technological advances brought about by the manipulation of electrons. Through radio and long-distance telephony, the world grew simultaneously smaller and larger, as local markets became global ones.

It then comes as no surprise that when electronics blossomed, it changed everything, seemingly all at once: Commerce, communications, entertainment, health care, security, transportation, and even science itself all soon mutated around it. The key breakthrough to all this progress was the advent of the electron tube, perfected by a string of brilliant engineers, which enabled the invention of new circuits of all descriptions: radar, the computer, the television, and on and on. These new tools would affect the political, economic, and social worlds of their users in ways few could ever have predicted, for better or worse.

Nebeker is the Senior Research Historian at the IEEE History Center at Rutgers University, in New Jersey. His well-researched book is easily understood by general readers but technically sound and detailed enough to interest the specialist.

For more book reviews, see the full list.

About the Author

Kieron Murphy is a frequent contributor to IEEE Spectrum.

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