When it got dark yesterday, you probably flipped a switch and turned on the lights in your home. It’s something we do every day, but most American homes have only enjoyed safe and convenient electricity for little more than 100 years. Read on for a brief tour through the history of electricity to learn how it ended up in your home, powering the very computer or mobile device which you're using to read this post.
Dreaming of Conduction
Until about 300 years ago people had little if any knowledge of how electricity worked, besides observing lightning and the destruction it could bring. In the 18th century, however, several discoveries and advances set the stage for humans to harness the awesome power of conductivity.
The discovery of the conductive properties of electricity is credited to English scientist Stephan Gray, who found that small static charges would carry over a wire. Then in 1752, prolific American statesman and inventor Benjamin Franklin famously demonstrated that lightning was in fact electricity by flying a kite in a storm and receiving a shock through the line. These and other breakthroughs laid the groundwork for the explosion in knowledge and invention to come in the 1800s.
Let There Be Light
In 1831, Michael Faraday made the crucial discovery that electricity could be generated by moving magnets inside copper wire. Now people had the technology to generate electricity, and to conduct it through wire -- all they needed was something to apply it to. One of the most important applications of this new power source, the electric light bulb, didn't come around until 1879 when Thomas Edison perfected the design.
Edison was also involved in the opening of the Pearl Street Station in Manhattan in 1882, the nation's first central power plant, which lit homes in the neighborhood using his incandescent bulbs. Other power stations followed throughout the country; soon consumer appliances like washing machines and refrigerators hit the market, promising to make people's lives easier by using electricity to take the place of manual labor.
By the 1930s, about 90 percent of urban homes were connected to the grid. Franklin Delano Roosevelt set up the Rural Electric Administration in 1935, which brought electricity to much of the rest of the country in ensuing decades. Radios, televisions and eventually computers proliferated in homes across America.
From Coal to Solar
Using the method pioneered by Faraday, the United States began to generate electricity on a large scale. Coal was and still is the dominant fuel, and is burned to create steam, which moves a turbine to spin magnets within the electric coils. Nuclear energy hit the scene in the 1950s and has held a steady share of production since the 1980s, while coal's grip has loosened slightly in recent years in favor of natural gas. Renewable energy sources like wind are just starting to gain momentum, and solar power is giving individual homes a way to generate their own electricity.
Now that nearly the entire country is hooked up to the grid, focus has shifted to finding efficiencies while decreasing the amount of electricity we use and the amount of fossil fuel we burn to generate it. So follow these tips to cut down on your energy consumption, and next time the power goes out, light a candle and remember how different life was for your ancestors in the not-too-distant past.
Give local Mister Sparky® a call for help with any electrical problems.