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Histoire de l'electricite en Suisse. La dynamique d'un petit pays europen, 1875-1939.

Histoire de l'[acute{e}]lectricit[acute{e}] en Suisse. La dynamique d'un petit pays europ[acute{e}]n, 1875-1939, 2 volumes. By Serge Paquier. Geneva: Editions Passe Present: 1998, 1216 pp. Appendices, bibliography, charts, graphs, illustrations, index, and tables. 130 Sf. ISBN 2940014159.

These voluminous books result from the doctoral dissertation the author submitted to the University of Geneva. They consist of twenty chapters divided into four parts. The first part (180 pages) surveys information gathered on the history of electricity in the West. The next (227 pages) treats the scientific, technical, and entrepreneurial traditions that explain Switzerland's enthusiastic response to electricity. The third section (175 pages) examines the transition the country made between 1875 and 1895 from dependency to innovation in the technical field. The final part (486 pages) elaborates on the Swiss market and legislation from 1895 to 1939, as well as the Helvetic financial holdings relating to the electrical manufacturing industry from 1895 to 1914.

To begin with, the reviewer can only regret this dissertation was not shortened into a book of some 400 pages. The first two parts could have been summarized in two chapters. The last section could also have been reduced: one wonders why the author prolonged his study of the market to 1939, while he didn't analyze the manufacturing sector beyond 1914.

On the other hand, Paquier's work proposes interesting explanations on a subject that has received little attention so far: Switzerland's dynamism about electricity. Paquier hasn't made a conventional depiction of the Helvetic electrical business. Instead of analyzing it apart from its electrical manufacturing counterpart, he merged both sectors in order to expose more clearly their strong relationship especially before 1900. Moreover, besides treating each company individually in several pages, he has oriented his analysis around three major themes forming, according to him, the fundamental elements of the Swiss specificity in the electrical industry: a solid national technical culture, the strong presence of the public sector in the production and distribution of electrical energy, and the Swiss financial facilities.

The Helvetic Confederation, writes Serge Paquier, benefited from two characteristics as far as technical culture is concerned. Firstly, the country came out from the First Industrial Revolution with a significant experience in the field of hydraulic energy. Whether through waterway modifications (chapter 8), or through energy transmission with cables (chapter 9) and with pressured water (chapter 11), companies like Escher-Wyss asserted themselves rapidly as leading hydroelectrical machine manufacturers and network builders (p. 383). Secondly, however, the Swiss did not figure among the great precursors of the electrical industry. The most decisive inventions came from abroad (p. 409). Therefore, the Helvetic companies borrowed technologically from foreigners, first from the British, then from the Germans and Americans. Many Swiss engineers studied in neighboring countries, many businessmen inspired themselves from strategies elaborated by non-Swiss competitors (p. 459). Up to 1888, there was no law protectin g patents in Switzerland. It was thus easy to borrow and to adapt (p. 414). But more importantly, Swiss enterprises like Oerlikon favored collaboration with multinational firms like AEG in technically risky projects (p. 487). It is precisely the articulation between traditions and borrowings that constitutes the first element of explanation of Swiss dynamism, an articulation that has been reinforced by institutions like the Zurich Federal Polytechnic School and the Lausanne Engineering School (p. 571ff).

In the end, it should not be surprising that between 1881 and 1905 many electrical manufacturing companies were created in Switzerland and that international groups like AEG and Siemens tried to profit from the Swiss market and know-how. In order to counter such "invasion," but also to ensure the country's water would not be monopolized by private groups, be they foreigner or not, public authorities took control of the production and the transmission of electricity. This is what Serge Paquier calls the suissification de l'infrastructure (p. 415). This measure was essentially a defensive one. During the 1890s, most of the big Swiss cities municipalized their electrical networks (p. 776). Afterwards, the cantons became stricter in granting hydraulic sites to private enterprises and many preferred buying them back or creating a joint venture with the private sector for their exploitation. Finally, in the interwar years, the electrification of the Federal railway system extended this policy (p. 860). Swiss manuf acturers like Oerlikon benefited from the orders the public sector gave them in priority. But a group like Brown-Boveri complained after 1918 about the excessive presence of the public authorities in the electrical domain (p. 888). The suissification became, so it seemed, counterproductive for the financial holdings and the associated banks investing in electricity.

Through its laws and its institutions, Switzerland favored various kinds of financial associations and strategies. Considering the massive need for investment electrification required, this country became a major international center in this respect. Among other financial strategies, one originating in Germany, Unternehmergesch[ddot{a}]ft, became dominant. Inspired by the works of Peter Hertner and Luciano Segreto, the author has given a lot of emphasis to this strategy. Unternehmergesch[ddot{a}]ft consists in investing, through a financial subsidiary or through an associated bank, in an entreprise installing streetcar or electrical networks. Important electrical portfolios were formed that way. In the 1890s, AEG and Siemens created financial subsidiaries in Switzerland: Elektrobank and Indelec. Brown-Boveri followed with the setting up of Soci[acute{e}]t[acute{e}] Anonyme Motor in 1895, while many banks, like Bankverein, invested in the sector while maintaining their autonomy from the electrical manufacturi ng groups (chapter 20). These financial businesses became shareholders of many electrical companies in Mediterranean, South American, East European and Middle Eastern countries. However, they eventually concentrated their attention on industrialized countries like Germany and France. As the author notes himself (p. 699), this strategy was not self-sufficient. In the long run a manufacturer needed to establish electrotechnical subsidiaries abroad and to insist on technical excellence.

The combination of these three themes constitutes Serge Paquier's model of electrification for Switzerland. There is no doubt that the Swiss specialization of electrical manufacturers in heavy equipment has been stimulated and extended by the national technical, institutional and financial traditions, to the detriment of, for instance, household electrical appliances. There is no doubt either that these strategies were not always coordinated. These aspects of Swiss electrification are well shown by Serge Paquier. However, what is less clear in his work is the actual result of these strategies. Here and there, the author proposes explanations for the success of some and the failures of others, but they are not based on rigorous examination of the companies' accounts. The analysis, unfortunately, lacks precision in that respect. But all in all we should be grateful to Serge Paquier for having offered us significant information on, and a challenging interpretation of, his country's electrical history.

Pierre Lanthier is a professor of history at the Universit[acute{e}] du Qu[acute{e}]bec [grave{a}] Trois-Rivi[grave{e}]res.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Lanthier, Pierre
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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