History of Electricity


Scientists have been studying electricity for centuries, but it was not until the latter half of the 1800's that electricity was applied practically and its formal study began. The principles of electricity gradually became understood.

In June of 1752, Benjamin Franklin did an experiment with a kite one stormy night and discovered that lightning was electricity.  He was investigating if lightning was an electric phenomenon.

In 1820, Hans Christian Orsted discovered that electrical current creates a magnetic field. This discovery made scientists relate magnetism to the electric phenomena.

In 1879, Thomas Edison invented the electric light bulb. He improved a 50-year-old idea using lower current electricity, an improved vacuum inside the globe and a small carbonized filament, and produced a reliable and long-lasting source of light. At that time, the idea of electric lightning was not new, but nothing had been developed that was practical enough for home use. Edison not only invented an incandescent electric light, but an electric lighting system that contained all the necessary elements to make the incandescent light safe, economical, and practical. Prior to 1879, direct current (DC) electricity had been used in lighting for the outdoors.

It was in the 1880's when the modern electric utility industry began. It was an evolution from street lighting systems and from gas and electric carbon-arc commercial systems. On September 4th, 1882, Edison switched on the world's first electrical power distribution system, providing 110 volts of direct current (DC) to fifty-nine customers, and the fist commercial power station began working. It was located in Lower Manhattan, on Pearl Street. This station provided light and electricity to customers in a one square mile range. The electric age had begun. The station was called "Thomas Edison's Pearl Street Electricity Generating Station." This station introduced four elements of a modern electric utility system:

* Efficient distribution
* A competitive price
* Reliable central generation
* A successful end use

In the late 1800,s, Nikola Tesla began to work with the generation, use, and transmission of alternating current (AC) electricity, which can be transmitted over much greater distances than direct current (DC). Tesla, with the help of Westinghouse, brought indoor lightning to our homes and to industrial machines.

In 1881, Lucien Gaulard of France and John Gibbs of England demonstrated a power transformer in London. George Westinghouse became interested with the transformer and started experimenting with AC networks in Pittsburgh. He worked on refining the transformer's design and on building a practical AC power network. Westinghouse used the transformer to solve the problem of sending electricity to longer distances. This invention made it possible to supply electricity to businesses and homes that were far away from the generating plant. In 1886, Westinghouse and William Stanley installed the first multiple-voltage AC power system in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. A hydropower generator that produced 500 volts AC drove this network. The voltage was transmitted in 3,000 volts and then stepped back down to 100 volts to give power to electric lights. Later that year, Westinghouse formed the "Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company". In 1888, Westinghouse and his engineer Oliver Shallenger developed the power meter. This meter looked like a gas meter and this same basic technology is still used today. Westinghouse also influenced history by enabling the growth of the railroad system and by the promotion of the use of electricity for transportation and power. He also invented the hydroelectric development of Niagara Falls in 1896, and he begun placing the generating stations far from the consumption centers. The Niagara plant transmitted incredible amounts of power to Buffalo, New York (more than 20 miles away). It was Niagara Falls that proved the superiority of the transmission of power with electricity rather that by mechanical means, it also proved the superiority of alternating current (AC) over direct current (DC). Niagara set the standards for the size of the generators and was the fist large system that supplied electricity from one circuit for multiple end-uses like railway systems, lighting and power.

Westinghouse promoted the distribution of AC power, and Edison promoted a DC power system. Both of them got into a confrontation called "The War of Currents". Edison stated that high voltage systems were very dangerous and Westinghouse answered by saying that the risks could be managed and the benefits were much greater. The battle continued for a long time.   Westinghouse AC Networks was winning, but the ultra competitive Edison made a last attempt to defeat his rival by hiring an outside engineer named Harold P. Brown to perform a public demonstration of animals being electrocuted by AC power. This demonstration led to the invention of the electric chair to execute condemned prisoners.