Electricity is an essential part of modern life so vital that most of us cannot imagine a life without it. But – amazingly – it has only been an everyday aspect of our lives for a little over a century.
Back in 1752, when Benjamin Franklin demonstrated that lightning was electrical with his famous kite experiment, people couldn’t even fathom the many conveniences and luxuries that electricity would bring to the 20th and 21st centuries.
Electricity in the Early Days
The first documentation in the history of electricity dates all the way back to 500 B.C. when Thales of Miletus discovered static electricity by rubbing fur on amber. But it wasn’t until two thousand years later, in the 1600s, that English physician and physicist William Gilbert published the first theories about electricity in his book, De Magnete. The next major text about electricity, Experiments and Notes about the Mechanical Origin or Production of Electricity was published in 1675 by English chemist and physicist Robert William Boyle.
The exploration of electricity went up a notch during the next century, though and things started heating up. In the early 1700s – decades before Franklin’s kite – English scientist Francis Hauksbee made a glass ball that glowed when rubbed while experimenting with electrical attraction and repulsion. The glow was bright enough to read by, and this discovery would eventually lead to neon lighting a few centuries later.
Fast forward to September 1882, when a house in Appleton, Wisconsin became the first American home to be powered by hydroelectricity. The station that powered the home used the direct current (DC) system developed by Thomas Edison. Over the next several years, “the direct current versus alternating current (AC)” debate captured attention, as Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse (who championed AC), competed for contracts.
The War of the Currents
Long before electric power in homes became mainstream, the standard form of electricity in the United States was the DC system that Edison developed through General Electric. Nikola Tesla, a student of Edison, believed that AC was a better option because, with the use of transformers, power could be converted to higher or lower voltages much easier and more efficiently. (This website provides an explanation of the differences between AC and DC current.) Edison argued – through what some refer to as a “misinformation campaign” – that AC was far more dangerous. This battle peaked in 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair when General Electric lost its bid to power the fair to George Westinghouse, who was using Tesla’s AC system.
Eventually, because it was cheaper to distribute and could supply power to larger areas, AC became the new standard for electricity in the U.S.
The Evolution of Wiring and Electrical Components
In the earliest days of home electrification, electricity was often carried place to place by bare copper wires with minimal cotton insulation. Sockets, switch handles, and fuse blocks were made of wood. There were no voltage regulators and lights would dim and brighten in response to demand placed on the electrical grid. From about 1890 to 1910, knob and tube wiring was used for electric installation. In this early set-up, hot wires and neutral wires were run separately and were insulated using rubberized cloth, which degraded over time. From the 1920s to the 1940s, flexible armored cable, which offered some protection from wire damage, became commonplace. During the 1940s, electricians began using metal conduit, in which several insulated wires were enclosed in rigid metal tubes.
During these years, the potential for danger was much higher than it is today because wires weren’t grounded. If one of the “hot” wires became damaged or some other mishap caused the electrical current to escape the wiring pathways, fire or severe electrical shock was often the result.
After 1965, grounded wires, which direct stray electrical current back into the ground, created a safer environment for homeowners. (If your house was built before 1965, ground circuit fault interrupters [GFCI] are a great upgrade option. Check with a licensed electrician for more information.) Most modern homes also have circuit breakers that immediately shut off power if they sense an overload, providing additional safeguards.
Electricity in the Modern Era
Well into the 20th century, most Americans continued to illuminate their homes using gas lamps. In 1925, only half of American houses had electrical power. Thanks in great part to FDR’s Rural Electrification Act of 1936, by 1945, 85 percent of American homes were powered by electricity, with virtually all homes having electricity by 1960.
Initially, electricity was used primarily for lighting. But as appliances like vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, and washing machines became more popular starting in the 1950s, demand for electricity grew by leaps and bounds. With today’s myriad appliances and electronic devices, it’s essential to have wiring and components that can handle the heavy load required to power our modern lives.
As we settle into the 21st century, electricity continues to evolve, yet innovations – at least when it comes to our sources of power – have come more slowly. Coal, petroleum, and natural gas have been our primary sources of electrical production since the early 20th century, and alternating current still reigns.
But, there are changes underway.
The Future of Electricity
According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, renewable energy is the fastest-growing source of electricity in the United States, increasing 67 percent from 2000 to 2016. Eco-conscious entrepreneurs are committed to the transition from fossil fuels to renewable electricity – which includes not only wind and solar, but also a renewed focus on hydroelectric power. As technology improves over the next few decades, a transition to renewable power sources as our primary producers of electricity is likely. And, as our appliances – and our homes – get “smarter,” the demand for electricity and new innovations will continue to grow.
In addition, direct current has been making a comeback: LEDs and computers use DC, and engineers have learned that DC may actually be more efficient than AC when transmitting millions of volts over large regions. New DC transformers are able to convert from low to very high voltages just like traditional transformers do with AC. Increased use of electric cars, which operate on DC power, will also push the demand for DC. The International Energy Agency projects that the number of electric cars on the road worldwide will expand from 3 million in 2017 to 125 million by 2030. Finally, using DC power allows for easy integration of wind and solar energy into the electrical grid.
And who knows the bounds of all the possibilities? Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, publicly discussed theories in 2014, that an electric jet design would be possible.
The history of electricity is fascinating! Who knows what the future will bring? Regardless of where the latest energy revolutions and inventions take us, one thing is certain: We will always need professional, licensed electricians like the ones at Mr. Electric®. From upgrading electrical panels and wiring to installing complicated electronic devices and appliances, we’ll keep your home’s electricity safe and secure! Make an appointment online with your local Mr. Electric or call us directly at (844) 866-1367.
If exploring the history of electricity – and the scientists behind the evolution – has inspired you to make your mark upon the world, check out these tips for success from fellow Neighborly home services brand, Glass Doctor®.