W. Hausman u.a.: Global Electrification

Global Electrification. Multinational Enterprise and International Finance in the History of Light and Power, 1878–2007

Hausman, William J.; Hertner, Peter; Wilkins, Mira
Cambridge Studies in the Emergence of Global Enterprise
XXIII, 487 S.
£ 48.00
Rezensiert für 'Connections' und H-Soz-Kult von:
Maria Hidvegi, Geisteswissenschaftliches Zentrum Geschichte und Kultur Ostmitteleuropas (GWZO), Universität Leipzig

The introduction of electricity changed life fundamentally. At first a luxury good, electric light and power generation, both symbols of modernity, soon became a basic need everywhere in the world. Historians have emphasized the importance of the extension of transport and communication infrastructure in promoting globalization. The subject of electrification has fascinated business and economic historians: analyzing strategies of manufacturing companies from different perspectives, the interaction between social and cultural factors and the process of electrification, the history of electrical technology and many more aspects. “Global Electrification” is, however, the historical narrative of multinational enterprises (MNE) acting as “drivers of globalization” [1] by enhancing electrification all over the world.
The authors aim to fill a gap in the systematic analysis of MNE and international finance in providing electric power and further, to deliver a truly global narrative of the process. For this purpose, Mira Wilkins (Florida International University), William J. Hausmann (College of William and Mary, Virginia) and Peter Hertner (Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg) worked closely together with a large team of leading experts in the field of history of electrification and multinational enterprises, from Europe, North America and New Zealand. The result is not just an edited volume of essays, but an integrated study. Showing the interconnectedness of the process of spreading electricity in distant regions rather than offering a compilation and comparison of national experiences, the authors did succeed in giving a global perspective on the subject.

This study has been published in the series of Cambridge Studies in the Emergence of Global Enterprise [2] that introduces new perspectives, theories and fields of research about MNE. “Global Electrification” is a contribution to the theory of MNE by classifying types and forms of MNE’s activity in spreading electrification worldwide (Chapter two). Basically, classic manufacturing MNE was unable to meet the manifold tasks of finance, build and manage electric utility systems over the world due to the capital intensity of the field. As the authors illustrate, the process of electrification was fostered by multiple financial intermediaries. A wide variety of patterns of doing business and channels through which capital, technology, and knowledge moved over borders (manufacturers’ satellites, holding companies, free-standing companies, clusters, networks, enclaves etc.) were identified.

At the end of the first chapter, the narrative as followed by the authors is outlined in a table. (p. 31-33). It depicts the extent of foreign ownership and control of electric utilities in nearly 90 countries from all continents in four benchmark periods. These data reveal a pattern of large foreign ownership from the end of the 19th century through a substantial diminution from the 1930s until its nearly complete disappearance in Europe and large parts of Asia and Africa after the Second World War. The decolonization movement resp. populist democracies led to the same effect until the early 1970s in Northern and Eastern Africa and the American continent. However, the reappearance of MNE from the late 1970s is not included in the table. It is of no surprise that the extent of foreign ownership was considerably larger in poor and late industrializing countries so as colonies than in industrially developed parts of the world. However, a few marked differences from regional patterns like the small percentage of foreign ownership in Ecuador and Uruguay before 1914 or the large and surprising differences in the rate of foreign ownership in the three major parts of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy may have been explained in the chronological chapters, even if the focus of research has been directed toward the major actors.

The chronological chapters three to five describe the process of global electrification following specific patterns and the importance of different forms of foreign direct investment in electrical utilities. As reflected in the structure of the narrative, the focus is on modes of firm behavior, national patterns, or crucial years (the Great Depression) highlighting the interconnectedness of national developments. Chapter six summarizes the domestication pattern after the Second World War until 1978, illustrated with a clear, comprehensive table. Following, the second part of the chapter provides an overview about the development of the first century of electrification (from the 1880s to 1978) explaining why public ownership and control played an increasing role in providing electricity worldwide. The authors convincingly argue for both economic and political reasons as electricity became a basic need and therefore, was regarded as a vital part of national security resp. the expression of national sovereignty. The concluding chapter describes the latest development of the sector leading to the resurgence of MNE in providing electricity worldwide. However, the story told teaches that a reverse movement is possible: real and profound dependence on electricity make private investment in electricity a ready target to, and large sunk costs highly vulnerable to, host countries’ hostilities.

The authors arrive at the conclusion that electrification was “a highly internationalized process” and “multinational enterprises mattered” (p. 274). MNE have been spreading new technology, raising finance, introducing management, channeling experience and raising productivity, unifying national economies and linking distant countries. States and local authorities, however, should not be mistaken as the one-to-one opposite of MNE by only fractioning a global process of electrification. “Global Electrification” shows that in facilitating, regulating, and owning light and power companies, resp. sub-national and national authorities’ regulating and enhancing domestic and international financial transactions did contribute to the global spread of electricity and its regulation, too. The analysis pays due attention to populist sentiments and the conflict between public and private needs but only occasionally to the experience of small players in the field though their high dependence on foreign finance in this capital intensive sector is clearly stated. Particularly instructive is the presentation of different competitive advantages of countries playing a crucial role in global electrification. An example: American and German technological competence could be matched with the business climate, capital raising capability and accumulated experience in Swiss and Belgian holding companies. Canadian entrepreneurs were of similar importance in spreading electricity first of all in Latin America due to their experience with home electric utilities, their “access to British capital markets, and the ability to tap U. S. engineering talent” (p. 65). The experience gained in railway construction is given as one example of learning how to do large scale business across borders. It must be of no surprise that plans for the unification of Europe through electric power (p. 194) so as railway and highway lines [3] emerged on the eve of the Great Depression outlined by engineers and businessmen whose (business) activity was not restricted to that of their home country.

The story is not easy to follow owing to the large number of actors involved. Therefore the appendix with the different names and abbreviations of the companies is of great assistance. For readers not familiar with the technological side of electrification the first chapter offers a brief technological survey emphasizing the capital intensity of the sector as a crucial factor in its history. More maps would have certainly been useful to visualize the spreading of electricity and the major players’ spheres of interest. Extensive footnotes (150 pages) give insight to specific issues and provide guidance to further reading.

“Global Electrification” is a valuable contribution to the history of economic globalization and to international economic history to be recommended to specialists of the electrical industry and international finance as well as to readers interested in global history.

[1] Geoffrey Jones, Multinationals and Global Capitalism. From the Nineteenth Century to the Twenty-First Century, New York 2005.
[2] The editors are Louis Galambos (John Hopkins University) and Geoffrey Jones (Harvard Business School), see <http://www.cambridge.org/us/series/sSeries.asp?code=CSGE>
[3] See for example research carried out lately in the “Transnational Infrastructures and the Rise of Contemporary Europe” project at the Eindhoven University of Technology as part of the cross-Atlantic research network “Tensions of Europe. Technology in the Making of Twenty-Century Europe”.

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