On of my chapters begins with the story of Lewis Strauss, the head of the Atomic Energy Commission, who in 1954 famously said "It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter."
He was wrong. But what if he'd been right? How different would the world be? Today we have three technologies--processing power, digital storage capacity and bandwidth--that touch nearly as much of the economy as electricity, and they really are becoming too cheap to meter, and this chapter is about the implications of that.
In the course of writing this, I did a little research on the origins of the phrase, and like all famous quotes, it's wildly misunderstood. So here are five things you may not have known about "too cheap to meter", some taken from this great history page:
- He was probably talking about hydrogen fusion, not uranium fission. Then, as today, fusion was decades away from being viable. Fission (what's known as "nuclear power"), on the other hand, was already in the works and everyone, including Strauss, knew that it probably would be more expensive than coal, given the high capital costs of setting up the plants.
- "Too cheap to meter" doesn't mean free: it just means too cheap to monitor closely. Indeed, some building built around that time, including the World Trade Center, were designed without light switches in each office. Instead, building managers could just turn on and off whole floors, like a Christmas Tree. Electricity was expected to be too cheap to bother thinking about.
- Strauss was strong proponent of the hydrogen bomb, which put him in conflict with Robert Oppenheimer, the regretful father of the atomic bomb. He famously testified against Oppenheimer in a congressional witch hunt that led to Oppenheimer losing his security clearance. "Strauss told President Eisenhower that he would only accept the position of AEC chair if Oppenheimer played no role in advising the agency. He explained that he didn't trust Oppenheimer partly because of his consistent opposition to the superbomb. Within days of being sworn into office in July 1953, Strauss had all classified AEC material removed from Oppenheimer's office." [source]
- He got his comeuppance: "Over the years Strauss' arrogance and his insistence that he was always right made him unpopular on Capitol Hill. In 1959, after two months of exhausting hearings, the Senate rejected his nomination to be Secretary of Commerce. The ordeal was publicly humiliating for Strauss, especially after he was caught lying under oath."
- The whole quote is part of a slightly over-the-top space-age rhapsody on the ability of science and technology to improve the world, which he gave in a speech to science writers in New York: ""It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter; will know of great periodic regional famines in the world only as matters of history; will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds, and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours, as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age. This is the forecast of an age of peace."