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Too cheap to meter?

This is the sort of thing you can do with cheap power
When I was researching my book Ecologic I came across one of those irritating quotes that seem to belong to more than one person.

(The classic example of this phenomenon is the aphorism 'Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal' or its variant 'Good artists copy, great artists steal', which are attributed to T. S. Eliot, Stravinsky and Picasso.)

A popular quote that the media use to show how misguided early fans of atomic energy were is that they thought it would be 'too cheap to meter.'

A fair number of UK sources attribute this to one of the British pioneers, Walter Marshall. But I am yet to find a single reference as to the context in which this was said or written, if it ever was, by Marshall.

What seems to have a stronger attribution is that these words were said by the chairman of the US atomic energy commission, Lewis L. Strauss. However the context in which he said this is absolutely essential in understanding it.

Strauss was addressing the National Association of Science Writers in 1954. It was one of those hand-waving, vague visions of a utopian future. Yes, he did say that 'our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter' (though not specifically that it would be generated by nuclear fission) but also that there would be an end to disease, hugely extended human lifetimes and world peace. It was that kind of speech. You know the sort of thing.

This is a prediction with about as much support at the time as Alvin Toffler in Future Shock saying that by now we would all be wearing paper clothes, or Clarke and Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey showing Pan Am commercial flights to a space station, and life-size video telephone booths operated by Bell in 2001. It was woffly future-gazing, yet the media repeatedly pick it up as a real expectation that wasn't present in either science or industry at the time.

This prediction isn't a miss, it's a myth.

(If anyone can give me a source for the quote from Walter Marshall, I would be grateful.)

This post first appeared on my Nature Network blog - I'm bringing some of the old posts over to my new home, as the NN blog is liable to disappear soon.

Image from Wikipedia


  1. I love the irony of 'Good artists copy, great artists steal' being attributed to three artists! - At least two were practicing what they preach!

  2. "It was one of those hand-waving, vague visions of a utopian future." It was not, it was a speech about nuclear power from start to finish, with a few mentions of bombs. The 10-page transcript goes on page after page complaining about how atomic power was not being well reported in the press. He then quickly covers the history of its development over the previous 15 years, quotes a co-worker who states it will be in use in the next 5 to 15 years, and then makes this famous statement. Start on page 8 and continue to page9:


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