A Brief History of the Electrical World
Part 1: The Beginning

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In 1800 Alessandro Volta in Italy invented the voltaic pile, the electrical battery, allowing for a continuous current of electricity.

In 1821 Faraday discovered the principle of the electric motor: electromagnetic rotation generates work; and in 1831 he discovered electromagnetic induction, the principle behind the electric transformer (to transfer electricity) and the electric generator (that generates electricity from a rotating cylinder in a magnetic field).

The first dynamo (electricity generator) based on Faraday's principle was built in 1832 by Hippolyte Pixii in France: a device that generates an electrical current when it is rotated.

Not long after the battery had been invented, the first battery-operated electric clocks surfaced in Italy, Germany and England. In 1812 the Italian priest Giuseppe Zamboni improved Volta's pile so it could be used in everyday's objects, and built the first electric clock,

followed by Francis Ronalds in 1814 in England and Alois Ramis (who used Zamboni's design) in 1815 in Germany; but the electric clock truly came into its own with Carl Steinheil in 1839 (Germany), Alexander Bain in 1840 (England) and Matthaus Hipp in 1842, (Germany).

The first household item that got threatened by electricity was the mechanical pendulum clock.

The Telegraph

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Before the electric telegraph, Europe used the optical telegraph, a by-product of astronomy and clockmaking. It was first demonstrated in 1792, in the middle of the French revolution, by Claude Chappe, an astronomer's nephew, who built a line of towers with signposts (called "semaphores") and telescopes stretching 230 kms from Paris to Lille and then sent a message that the operator of each tower relayed to the next one. The telescopes allowed the towers to be placed several kilometers apart from each other. A clockmaker, Abraham-Louis Breguet, built a mechanism for the operator to control the semaphore. The semaphore could assume 98 different positions, and Chappe figured out a complex code to represent the letters of the alphabet, the ten digits, some syllables, some words and even some short sentences. It took ten minutes to transmit the message between the two cities, equivalent to a speed of 1,380 km/h, faster than 21st century air mail. The two farthest points set up by Napoleon's network were Amsterdam in the Netherlands and Venezia/Venice in Italy, and a message between the two cities took about one hour (the network was dismantled soon after the British defeated Napoleon).

The first success story of electricity was the telegraph. In 1833 Carl Gauss and Wilhelm Weber in Germany built the first electromagnetic telegraph. In 1835 Edward Davy invented the electrical relay, an electrically operated switch, for his electric telegraph. Relays are amplifiers that help keep alive a signal over a long distance. In 1837 the painter Samuel Morse of New Haven invented a binary code for the electrical telegraph (each letter corresponding to a sequence of dots and/or lines) and imported the European ideas of the telegraph in the USA.

In 1838 the Great Western Railway of Britain installed the first commercial telegraph in the world, built by Charles Wheatstone. Wheatstone had understood that long-distance transmission required many small batteries instead of one huge battery.

Morse's own telegraph used relays at frequent intervals. The first telegraph line in the USA, stretching from Washington to nearby Baltimore, finally opened in 1844, when Morse sent the message "What hath God wrought". The first commercial telegraph line was established in 1846 between Philadelphia and New York by the Magnetic Telegraph Company, which licensed the Morse patents (but the telegram had to be physically carried across the Hudson river by ferry).

Royal-Earl House invented a "printing telegraph" the first teletypewriter (or "teleprinter" or "teletype") so that telegrams could be sent and received without the need for operators trained in the Morse code. The machine automatically translated the telegraph's impulses into printed characters and viceversa. It was demonstrated at the Mechanics Institute in New York in 1844 even before Morse's line reached the city.

The effect of the new invention was not fully appreciated in Europe, where distances were short. But in 1846 the telegraph sent news of the Mexican war in real time. It used to take weeks to get news by ship: Britain learned of the revolution in the USA more than a month after it had started. And at the end of 1848 president James Polk's announcement that gold had been found in California generated an instant "gold rush" throughout the country and in the world. In 1848 the Associated Press was founded to distribute telegraphic news to any newspaper.

Morse's engineer Ezra Cornell founded some telegraph companies that eventually led in 1855 to the Western Union Telegraph Company. In 1861 Western Union connected the East Coast and the West Coast, or, better Nebraska and Nevada, laying down 27,500 poles. Nebraska was already connected to the East Coast and Nevada was already connected to California. California had been admitted to the USA in 1850, right after the discovery of gold, and its Gold Country had been connected to Nevada by improvised telegraph lines. Its first official telegraph line, between San Francisco and Marysville via San Jose, had opened in 1853, followed by a Marysville-Sacramento line in 1854. The first telegraph message traveled from San Francisco to Washington in 1861 when the Civil War had just started.

The transcontinental telegraph preceded the transcontinental railway by eight years. Western Union's transcontinental telegraph caused the demise of the old horse-based transmission of information (e.g., the Pony Express). Western Union rapidly became a giant corporation, and in 1871 it also launched its money transfer service.

The first transnational telegram had been sent in 1852 from Paris to Berlin. In 1866 Atlantic Telegraph Company, a company owned by paper magnate Cyrus Field, completed the transatlantic telegraph line between Newfoundland and Ireland , thereby reducing the communication time between America and Europe from days to minutes

Britain had so many different telegraph lines that in 1870 the government decided to create a national telegraph system, so that telegrams could travel from any town to any town via a central (chaotic) switchboard in London (inaugurated in 1874). Note that out of the 1,200 telegraphists working at the Central Telegraph Office 740 were women. In Britain the authorities thought that women were more reliable than men handling fragile instruments.

In 1870 Emile Baudot in France invented a 5-bit code for telegraph transmissions that coded the whole Roman alphabet and punctuation signs and sketched a design for his own teleprinter, based on House's concept.

The telegraph represented the second major revolution in information technology after the printing press. It decoupled transportation and communication: the virtual movement of information started replacing the physical movement of people.

The Motor and the Generator

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Meanwhile, the electric motor was reaching maturity. In 1832 William Sturgeon in Britain demonstrated an electric motor strong enough to turn machinery, but only in 1834 Moritz Jacobi in Prussia built a usable rotating electric motor.

The first practical application of the electric motor was an electric vehicle built in 1835 in the Netherlands by Sibrandus Stratingh and Christopher Becker. Another electric motor was invented in 1837 by a Vermont blacksmith, Thomas Davenport. In 1838, Jacobi, now working in Russia, built an even more impressive application of the electric motor: an electric boat. In 1840 Davenport used the first printing press powered by electricity to print his magazine Electro Magnet and Mechanics Intelligencer.

Progress in motors was not matched by progress in generators until in 1856 Werner Siemens built an electric generator for the telegraph stations of the Bavarian railways.

And in 1860 Antonio Pacinotti in Italy built an improved dynamo.

The first practical dynamo, a powerful electric generator, was built by Siemens in 1866. This was the enabling technology for power generators and electric motors, especially after in 1871 Zenobe Gramme in Belgium further improved Siemens' dynamo.

All this progress, starting even with Faraday, was largely independent from academic research. The world of Physics caught up only in 1864, when James-Clark Maxwell in England completed his equations of electromagnetism, which provided an elegant explanation for why all those motors and generators worked the way they worked. Physicists marveled at the fact that those equations didn't seem to obey Isaac Newton's laws


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The second success story of electricity was lighting. Homes, workplaces, streets and public buildings were lit with gas and oil lamps.

Humphry Davy had become interested in voltaic batteries as a laboratory operator at Bristol's Pneumatic Institution, whose equipment had been largely designed by James Watt (an interesting generational transition between the age of steam and the age of electricity). In 1802 he invented the incandescent light (using a platinum filament) at the Royal Institution of London (established just 3 years earlier), where he had access to the most powerful electrical battery in the world. That invention didn't go anywhere but in 1806 he also invented the arc light, using a carbon filament, and this became the first practical electric light and one of the first commercial uses for electricity.

In 1846 a Canadian geologist, Abraham Gesner, discovered a way to turn coal into a liquid fuel that he named kerosene, and in 1850 Gesner's Kerosene Gaslight Company began installing street lighting in both Canada and the USA. Kerosene was soon nicknamed "lamp oil". In 1851 Pittsburgh pharmacist Samuel Kier realized that kerosene could also be produced by refining petroleum, a substance (which he nicknamed "rock oil") that was mostly considered a nuisance. He set up the world's first oil refinery in 1853 to produce illuminating oil from petroleum. A Polish pharmacist living under Russian occupation, Ignacy Lukasiewicz, had the same idea and in 1853 invented the kerosene lamp, but his oil refinery of 1856 was still mostly producing lubricants. Meanwhile, lamp oil in the USA was mainly whale oil, and it was becoming both scarce and expensive. West Virginia and Pennsylvania were two of the states where petroleum was abundant. So far petroleum had been mined, a fact that made kerosene an unlikely substitute for whale oil, but in 1856 George Bissell decided to try the technique used for salt: drilling. He set up the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company and in 1859 Edwin Drake, a former railway agent hired to drill petroleum in Titusville (Pennsylvania), succeeded. The oil boom started for kerosene, not for gasoline (that was routinely discarded during the distillation process), i.e. for lighting, not for transportation. The Civil War of 1861 increases demand for Pennsylvania's oil, but not for transportation: it was a cheaper lubricant than whale and coal oils.

That is the reason why it took a long time for arc lights to become popular: the "discovery" of oil had provided a cheap and plentiful fuel for lamps.

The new dynamos made the difference. Davy was long dead when, in 1876, Charles Brush built an improved Pacinotti-style dynamo for arc lighting and lit up Public Square in Cleveland (Ohio) in 1879.

One of his first customers in 1879 was the California Electric Light Company (the ancestor of the main utility of northern California, Pacific Gas & Electricity), founded in San Francisco by a group of businessmen specifically to employ Brush's products for a new business model: use Brush's generators to provide electricity to customers in San Francisco. It was the electric utility selling electricity from a power plant to multiple customers via transmission lines. Another customer was New York where at the end of 1880 Brush's dynamos powered arc lamps for public lighting. By 1881 several other cities (Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Montreal, Buffalo) had adopted Brush's arc lights. In 1876 the Russian telegraph engineer Pavel Yablochkov, relocated in France, invented another carbon arc lamp, that in 1877 was used to lit a section of the Louvre (powered by Gramme's dynamo). Yet another arc light was invented in 1879 in Philadelphia by Elihu Thomson, who formed a company in Lynn (Massachusetts) with his former teacher Edwin Houston. Their product was so successful that Thomson-Houston bought out Brush in 1889.

In 1878 Joseph Swan in England invented an incandescent light bulb and lit his own house. In 1881 his incandescent light bulbs were installed at the Savoy Theatre of London, the first public building in the world to be lit entirely by electricity.

Thomas Edison, a former telegraph operator, became famous for inventing the phonograph in 1877, a mechanical (not electrical) device to play sound encoded in cylinders. This was the second cloning device after the photographic camera (the "calotype") of Henry Talbot (1841).

Using the money he made out of his inventions in telegraphy, he established his own laboratory at Menlo Park in New Jersey (the first startup and the first industrial laboratory).

In 1878 he invented his own incandescent light bulb. His wasn't the first incandescent light bulb, but Edison's light bulb was the first one that anyone could buy.

In order to bring his invention to every home, or at least every business, Edison needed a system to transmit electricity from the power plant to the users. In 1880 he opened the first power plant, but he stuck to direct current. In 1880 he also installed light bulbs on the steamship "Columbia", a publicity scoop. In 1882 the Mahen Theatre of Brno, a city in the Czech region of the Austrian Empire, became the first public building to be lit with Edison's incandesent bulbs. In 1882 Edisons, who had founded the Edison Illuminating Company, opened two power stations, one at Holborn Viaduct in London and one on Pearl Street in New York's Manhattan.

The one in London used steam, the one in Manhattan used coal. The latter connected a 110-volt direct-current generator to a few hundred lamps in the neighborhood: Edison had reasoned that lower voltage was not efficient, and higher voltage burned the light bulbs. In 1882 Edison also built his first hydroelectric plant on the Fox River in Wisconsin (the Vulcan Street plant). In 1892 financier J P Morgan forced Edison to merge with Thomson-Houston becoming General Electric, de facto a takeover of Edison's company by Thomson-Houston's management. The new company's headquarters were established in Schenectady, near New York

Electricity spread rapidly around the world. In 1887, for example, the privately-held Tokyo Electric Lighting began supplying electricity to Tokyo.

The Telephone

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Of course, another great success story of electricity was the telephone, particularly Alexander Bell's telephone of 1876; but the telephone requires very low electricity. Phone companies supplied the power needed by their customers' phones directly into the copper cable.

See the history of the telephone.

The World's Fairs

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The world fair had become a big event after the success of the 1851 fair at London's Crystal Palace. Between 1876 (the Centennial International Exhibition of Philadelphia, the first one held in the USA) and 1915 (San Francisco) a series of world's fairs galvanized the US public, projecting a spectacular image of the future. However, the ones that did the most to publicize the age of electricity were held in Paris. In 1878 the world's fair displayed Thomas Edison's phonograph and Alexander Bell's telephone, while Yablochkov's electric arc lamps lit the Avenue de l'Opera and the Place de l'Opera, and Augustin Mouchot displayed the first practical solar-power generator. The International Exposition of 1881 at the Trocadero Palace focused solely on electricity (billed as the first International Electricity Exhibition), with attractions such as: Thomas Edison's incandescent light bulbs, Zenobe Gramme's dynamo, Alexander Bell's telephone, and Werner von Siemens' electric streetcar (carrying 50 passengers at a time from the Place de la Concorde to the Palais de l'Industrie). But also several electric tools for farmers: plows, egg incubators, nursery lights, etc.

In 1883 Edison's collaborator Luther Stieringer supervised the electric illumination of the Louisville Exposition, the first exposition entirely lit by incandescent lighting.

Edison exhibited an electric phonograph at the Universal Exposition of Paris in 1889, the same world fair that inaugurated the tallest building in the world, Gustave Eiffel's 300-meter cast-iron tower.

Alternating Current

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In 1883 Lucien Gaulard, an inventor from France, demonstrated in London his transformer for alternating current that allowed power stations to transmit electricity over very long distances at high voltage and then reduce the voltage at the destination. In 1884 Gaulard's transformer was adopted to transmit electricity from Torino to Lanzo in Italy, a 40 km distance.

In 1885 serial inventor George Westinghouse of Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) acquired Gaulard's technology.

His engineer William Stanley built the first commercial transformer that was demonstrated at Great Barrington (Massachusetts) in 1886.

In 1888 Westinghouse also bought all of Nikolai Tesla's patents, including his design of the single-phase alternating-current system of that year that ran on a 60 hertz frequency.

The new technology also brought the first warning that his new force of nature was deadly if touched with naked hands: in 1888 high-voltage alternating-current power lines killed several people.

The electric motor started competing with the steam engine in the last decades of the century with the advent of alternating current. In 1885 the independent Galileo Ferraris in Italy invented the (two-phase) asynchronous motor for alternating current as well as the alternator, a device to convert rotations into alternating current.

In 1887 the independent Friedrich Haselwander in Germany invented the other main type of alternating-current motor, the (three-phase) synchronous motor.

These motors and Tesla's single-phase motor were inefficient and cumbersome In 1889 Michael Dolivo-Dobrowolsky invented the three-phase asynchronous motor at AEG in Berlin, a company founded in 1883 as Allgemeine Elektricitaets-Gesellschaft by Emil Rathenau to manufacture Edison's light bulbs, motors and generators after being impressed with the 1881 International Exposition of Electricity.

Mikhail Dobrovolsky's three-phase transformers, generators and motors triumphed at the Frankfurt trade fair of 1891 transmitting electricity over a distance of 175 kms.

At the same time Ernst Danielson, an immigrant from Swden, imported the three-phase technology in the USA in 1890 when he joined Thompson-Houston in Lynn. When General Electric acquired Thompson-Houston, Danielson's three-phase alternating-current technology saved General Electric from Westinghouse's competition.

Electricity generators transformed mechanical energy into electricity, but first they need the mechanical energy. A century-old way to generate mechanical energy using the forces of nature was the waterwheel, that uses the force of flowing water to generate a rotating motion. In 1849 James Francis in Massachusetts invented the successor to the waterwheel: the water turbine. This could be used to generate electricity: falling water turned the water turbine, connected to generators. In 1884 Charles Parsons in Britain perfected the steam turbine. The steam turbines used energy created by burning fossil fuels and generated the rotary motion of an electricity generator. The steam was produced by heating water with coal. The steam turbine greatly improved the process of generating electricity, and was soon employed also to propel steamboats.

In the 1880s the hydraulic mines in California's Sierra Nevada were experimenting with hydroelectric power. Almarian Decker, a former engineer of the Brush arc light company in Ohio who had moved to California due to tuberculosis, integrated generation and transmission in the first three-phase alternate-current power plant, built in Redlands (near Los Angeles) in 1893.

Redlands lay in California's "orange" country. Decker first experimented with single-phase generators in 1892 at the San Antonio plant built to bring electricity from a waterfall to nearby Pomona over a 20 km distance; but for the Redlands power plant, placed on the Mill Creek flowing from the San Bernardino mountains and funded by local investors Henry Sinclair and Henry Fisher who were interested in using electricity to make ice for the business of shipping oranges by train, Decker adopted Danielson's three-phase generator, that was now a General Electric technology. Decker died before he could see the completion of his power plant, which in 1893 was the first three-phase power plant in the world. Three months later Danielson equipped a three-phase power plant in Sweden. Sinclair and Fisher became early investors in what would eventually became the main utility of southern California, Southern California Edison.

Ironically, alternating current was helped by the genius of direct-current motors, Frank Sprague, who in 1889 installed his water-powered generator on the Feather River near Sacramento in California and connected it with 14 local businesses. This was a big success and proved that electricity could replace waterwheels. The limitation, of course, was that the direct current could not be transmitted too far from the generator.

27 million people (including 14 million foreigners) attended Chicago's Columbian Exposition of 1893, that marked the triumph of Westinghouse's alternating current system. It featured an electric railway (built by General Electric), electric boats, electrical elevators and a moving walkway, besides an electric tower that featured, among other attractions, Western Electric's automated theater (Western Electric had been founded in 1872 in Chicago by Elisha Gray and acquired by Bell in 1881) and the telautograph, invented in 1888 by Western Electric's founder Elisha Gray, a machine to transmit handwritten notes and drawings.

The centerpiece was the "Tower of Light", designed by Luther Stieringer. Ernst Danielson's three-phase motors were the star attractions for engineers. Thanks to the electricity, this fair was more attractive at night than during the day.

In 1895 Horatio Livermore's company opened a 35 km hydroelectric power line to bring electricity from Folsom to Sacramento, with water powering four colossal General Electric dynamos, the first time that high-voltage alternating current had been successfully carried over a long distance.

In 1896 George Westinghouse built a hydro-electric power plant using water turbines and Nikola Tesla's new three-phase generators to bring electricity from Niagara Falls to Buffalo.

The USA, Britain and Germany followed different routes towards national electrification. Initially, they all had a multitude of power plants serving a limited territory each because they were producing direct current that cannot be transmitted over long distances. Even when these power plants converted to alternating current there was still the problem of compatibility. In 1900 London was served by 65 independent utilities that provided electricity at ten different frequencies and 24 different voltages. Berlin solved the problem by granting the rights to one utility to become the electric monopoly in return for a fee. The USA's trend to standardization and capitalistic spirit let consolidation happen naturally. Most power plants adopted Edison's standard of 110 volts even when the nation switched to alternating current, if nothing else to be backward compatible with the existing installed base. On the other hand, Westinghouse's 60 hertz frequency dominated in the USA's alternating-current industry, and became the standard, whereas in Germany and Britain (and British colonies such as India and Australia, but not Canada) the alternating-current giant was AEG, which used 60 hertz.

Electricity was viewed as a business in the USA even when it became a social issue in Europe. The priorities were different: in Europe the priority was to provide electricity to every home, whereas in the USA the priority was to let the business flourish. Nonetheless, after 1897 the citizens of many smaller cities of the USA demanded cheap and reliable electricity, so that the number of municipal utilities (established by local governments) rapidly matched the number of private utilities (mostly located in the big cities where they were encroached). Over the long run, however, the private utilities would win and take over most of the municipal ones.

The negative effect of the spread of electricity was that utilities started building dams with no regard for environmental, social and economic effects. Controlling the water resources and the land around them became vital to the power-generation industry. Ironically, the least electrified of all citizens were the farmers, because it made little economic sense to bring electricity to sparse rural communities. Dams were originally built for agricultural irrigation, but now they served a more lucrative purpose. In 1889 there were already 200 in the USA.

Electric Aesthetics

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Artificial light was a show even before it became a necessity. Stieringer "painted" both the ground and the buildings of Omaha's Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition of 1898, and designed the "Electric Tower" at Buffalo's Pan-American Exposition of 1901, that paid tribute to the hydroelectric power generators installed at Niagara Falls in 1896.

In 1907 D'Arcy Ryan of General Electric lit up Niagara Falls for 30 consecutive nights, and in 1909 he decorated the entire Hudson River in New Jersey and Manhattan to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Henry Hudson's discovery of the Hudson River and the 100th anniversary of Robert Fulton's steamboat. He also lit up the exterior of Manhattan's Singer Building in 1908, which was the tallest in the world when it opened.

In 1915 Ryan engineered the delirious lighting of the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco.

Public buildings and high-rise buildings were decorated with displays of night lights, and engineers like Ryan became specialists in the art of "special effects".

Electricity was spreading rapidly in the cities of the USA, but this was creating an urban nightmare: telegraph, telephone and lighting cables hanging from poles stretched from one corner to the other.

Theaters had been the first customers of electric lighting, but soon every business adopted electric lights to display their name and draw attention. This was another assault to the urban landscape, this time at night. Electricity disfigured the city during the day with its tangle of cables and during the night with its glowing signs. Broadway and Main streets were soon renamed "Great White Way", but not because of street lamps: because of the multitude of electric advertising. Because of their advertising function, they also tended to be elaborate. The familiar landscape was transformed at night by advertising signs, that made very appealing (and therefore very visible) things that were mediocre (and barely visible) during the day. The negative reactions by citizens and architects were rapidly outnumbered by the positive reactions of shop-owners (as well as citizens who felt safer in streets that were lit up all night). Only great buildings and the most important streets were visible at night, thus redrawing and simplifying the map of the city after dark.

The Trolley

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The next success story of electricity was the trolley was the trolley or "streetcar".

The first form of urban public transportation was the horse-driven omnibus, urban stagecoaches that carried many passengers along set routes for a small fare, an idea pioneered in 1826 by the city of Nantes in France and transplanted in Paris in 1828. The first US omnibus was started by Abraham Brower in New York in 1827, running along Broadway.

English coachbuilder George Shillibeer implemented the same idea in London in 1829 serving the route between Paddington and the Bank of England. The bumpy roads of those days made the trip very uncomfortable. Comfort increased when iron rails were installed in city streets, so that the ride would be smoother. The idea of this "horsecar" was pioneered already n 1828 by the Ceske Budejovice in Linz (Austria). In 1832 John Mason, president of the New York and Harlem Railroad, commissioned John Stephenson the construction of horsecars for New York, and the Fourth Avenue line was born.

In 1835 New Orleans switched from steam to horsecars for its St Charles Avenue line and soon all the main cities had horsecars. The British parliament de facto eliminated steam-driven vehicles in 1861 with the "Locomotive Act" because deemed too dangerous to pedestrians: it limited their speed to 8 km/h, which made them virtually useless. San Francisco came late to the horsecar, only 1861, but in 1873 was the first city to adopt the cable car on its Clay Street line.

built by bridge engineer William Eppelsheimer for Andrew Hallidie. The cable car used the same rails, but it was driven by a constantly running underground cable, propelled by a steam engine. Chicago, in particular, became the city of cable cars.

California was otherwise lagging behind: San Jose's first horsecar appeared in 1872, and Los Angeles had to wait till 1874 (then, again, Los Angeles had less than 10,000 people in those days).

The alternative was steam, which, of course, was a well-proven means of energy for transportation since the Liverpool-Manchester railroad had opened in 1830 in Britain (the contemporary Baltimore-Ohio railroad was still horse-drawn), but it was not really welcome in densely-populated areas because it was noisy and polluting. Steam locomotives were, however, used for both the first underground railway (London, 1863) and the first elevated railway (New York, 1868)

Chicago implemented several elevated steam railways.

The horsecar still dominated, but the expansion of urban population turned it into a major problem. Not only horses required stables, blacksmiths and veterinarians, but someone also had to collect all the manure that they dropped along the routes. The horsecar was a costly experiment and a rather stinky one. Last but not least, horses died. In 1872 an outbreak of equine influenza on the East Coast killed thousands of horses, causing disruption in many horsecar lines.

The dynamo had been improved because of its importance in providing the electricity for lighting, and its importance increased dramatically when it became powerful enough to propel a vehicle along rails. In 1879 Werner Von Siemens demonstrated the first electric locomotive at the Berlin Trade Fair, and in 1881 the world's first electric streetcar line opened near Berlin (the Gross-Lichterfelde line).

For two months in 1882 Siemens demonstrated his "elektromote" on a 500 meter track near Berlin, and that design was used in 1883 for the first electric trolley in Austria on the Moedling-Hinterbruehl line near Vienna.

Meanwhile, in 1880 Stephen Field, Cyrus Field's brother and a retired California jurist, built a trolley set up on a track in his mansion's backyard in Massachusetts; and Edison tested his own electric streetcar in Menlo Park. They joined forces to build the electric railway demonstrated at the Chicago Railway Exposition of 1883.

In 1883 Charles Van DePoele, a Belgian immigrant in Detroit, built the first electric railway in Chicago, and he exhibited another at the railway exposition in that city. He came up with the idea of overhead wires mounted on "trolley poles" to carry electricity, produced at a power plant by dynamos connected to steam engines: the vehicle sucked electricity from these wires via a pole sticking out of its roof. He introduced the first trolley pole at the Toronto Industrial Exhibition of 1885 and built the first electric streetcar line in Detroit in 1886. The advantage of the wires was that the car didn't have to be equipped with a cumbersome battery. His patents were purchased by Thomson-Houston.

Edison's direct-current motor exhibited serious problems. In 1884 Frank Sprague, who had worked for Edison for one year, started his own company to commercialize his design for a new kind of direct-current motor, a self-regulating motor capable of steady power; and exhibited it at the Philadelphia Electrical Exhibition of the same year. Edison himself recognized that it was the first motor useful for industrial and transportation applications, and several New York and Boston businesses adopted it (textile mills and printing presses).

In 1887 the Thomson-Houston electrified Lynn's streetcar line Highland Circuit using their alternating-current motors. The first electric streetcars in Los Angeles were operated by Charles Howland's Electric Railway Company in 1887 but, prone to accidents, it died quickly. This was a common story: the cities that adopted the electric streetcar before 1888 ended up returning to the horsecar. Even Detroit abandoned (by popular demand) DePoele's streetcars and returned to the horsecars in 1889. In 1888 Richmond in Virginia became the first success story of the electric trolley: Frank Sprague used his improved direct-current motor that established a national standard.

In 1989 Thomson-Houston built the West End Railway of Boston using Van DePoele's trolley technique, and that became the standard worldwide.

By the time that Brooklyn in New York electrified its Coney Island Avenue line in 1890, more than 100 cities had electric streetcars, mostly Sprague's type.

For example, electric trolleys returned to Los Angeles in 1890 when the Consolidated Electric Railway adopted Sprague's trolleys.

San Francisco was a late-comer in 1892. The weirdest streetcar was the Mount Lowe Railway built in 1893 near Pasadena by Thaddeus Lowe (an inventor of air balloons and ice-making machines) and railroad engineer David Macpherson with help from San Francisco cable-car expert Andrew Hallidie: it climbed a mountain on a very steep incline.

Electric streetcars were clean, and twice faster than the horsecars. They retired the old economy of veterinarians and blacksmiths, and replaced it with an economy of steam engines, mechanics and electricians, i.e. an economy of steel and copper. The streetcar increased the demand for bigger power stations. General Electric and Westinghouse made fortunes selling power stations, motors and lighting.

Streetcars became big business and monopolies appeared in several cities. In 1886 Henry Whitney, a shipping magnate, acquired all the horsecar and streetcar lines of Boston and founded the West End Street Railway Company, replacing 10,000 horses with streetcars and creating probably the most sophisticated urban transit system in the world. Charles Yerkes, a failed financier in Philadelphia, used bribery and blackmail to acquire all the Chicago lines (horse, steam and electric ones) except in the South Side, and in 1897 linked some of them together in the elevated 3-km long Loop.

Los Angeles' population had skyrocket to 100,000 by the year 1900. In 1901 railroad executive Henry Huntington (Collis Huntington's nephew) founded the Pacific Electric Railroad to create a network of electrical trolley cars and a network of new suburbs (such as Huntington Beach) around Los Angeles. Thanks to land speculation, he became one of the richest men in the USA. By 1911 the Pacific Electric served 56 communities within a 160 km radius.

The electric streetcars moved people out of downtown: anyone who could afford the fare could buy a house far from downtown, where land and services were cheaper and life was safer and quieter. The streetcar became so popular that in many places the interurban electric streetcars replaced some of the trains. These interurban streetcars with affordable fares made it possible for many more people to go on a day trip outside the city. For example, New Yorkers could spend the day at the Utica Park that opened in 1888 or at the amusement park of Coney Island that opened in 1897. In 1901 several electric lines carried residents from New York, New England, Illinois, Ohio and Ontario to Buffalo for the Pan-American Exposition, and the exposition included several trolley lines. The new technology of electricity was revealing an entertainment value. The amusement park, in particular, with its light effects and its electrical rides, was a way to sell this new technology as a form of entertainment. If the assembly line was soon to be technology's business expression, the amusement park was its recreational expression. Downtown was left to business. The factory could be located on the outskirts too. The shopping mall created another pole of urban life. In the end, the individual was a homeowner in one place, a consumer in another place, a worker in another place and a tourist in yet another place.

The streetcar democratized urban travel before the rise of the automobile. Even rich people preferred it over the slow and uncomfortable horse-driven coaches. The racist southern states had to introduce separate sections for whites and blacks, otherwise there was absolutely no difference in the comfort and speed of transportation.

The urban streetcar created a new opportunity for socializing. Not the church picnic, not the workplace, not the neighborhood shop, but the streetcar in which one could meet complete strangers from another part of town, a different occupation and even a different religion.

If not socializing, the "commuter" had time for the newspaper or the book. Therefore the streetcar indirectly also helped the printing presses.

The streetcar even changed the function of advertising. The electric sign in the window of a store was visible all night, and one could linger at will in front of it, but the ad pasted on the wall of a streetcar could be viewed only for a few seconds depending on the movement of the crowd. It had to speak to the random passenger in a fleeting moment.

The rise of the automobile sealed the fate of the streetcar, and the stock market crash of 1929 finished off many of the streetcar operators. Ironically, the business of using electricity to transport people and goods horizontally died out, whereas the business of using electricity to transport people and goods vertically never ended.

Subways and Railways

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The electric subway was a natural evolution of the streetcar. The first one opened in Longon in 1890 between Stockwell and King William Street, a five-kilometer line that ran under the Thames.

Boston opened the first subway of the USA in 1897. Then New York followed in 1904 and Philadelphia in 1907.

California was not interested in subways: San Francisco did not get a subway until 1972 and Los Angeles not until 1993.

Meanwhile, longer and faster railways had increased the movement of goods and people, but they had all been powered by steam locomotives. In 1883 new transcontinental railroads had opened between the East Coast and the West Coast: one to Los Angeles via New Orleans and one to Seattle via Chicago; and two years later Canada completed its own (much longer) transcontinental railroad. The Trans-Siberian railway in Russia opened in 1904. Electrification of railways began in earnest in 1895 on the Baltimore-Ohio railroad. In 1899 Switzerland tested a three-phase alternating-current locomotive on the Burgdorf-Thun line.

The Elevator

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From the very beginning it was clear to this generation of pioneers that there was no conceptual difference between horizontal and vertical movement: what worked for streets would work for elevators. Electric streetcars were replacing horsecars and the electric elevator was likely to replace the hydraulic and steam elevator.

The golden age of the elevator had begun in 1854 when Elisha Otis of New York had demonstrated his safety elevator (an elevator that stops automatically in case of mechanical incident) at the New York World's Fair.

In 1878 Siemens built the first electric elevator in Mannheim, which proved to be faster than hydraulic or steam elevators. In 1886 Sprague tested his motor by installing it in a Boston freight elevator. In 1890 Otis installed an alternate-current elevator in a building, the Demarest Building in New York. In 1890 General Electric acquired Sprague's business, and in 1892 Sprague launched a new business in electric elevators that he sold to Otis in 1895. In 1896 Jesse Reno installed the world's first escalator (an inclined elevator) in New York's Coney Island Park.

The electric elevator, the electric lights and the electric fans (invented in 1882 by Schuyler Wheeler of Massachusetts) enabled the multi-storey department store.

The Germans

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By the turn of the century, Berlin was nicknamed "Elektropolis". In 1875 the industrial output of Germany, a 4-year-old nation, passed France's, and in 1900 it passed Britain's. German universities were the best in science and mathematics. In 1883 Darmstadt University of Technology introduced the world's first course in electrical engineering. Siemens, AEG and Bayer invented the industrial research laboratory.

Chemistry and engineering spawned a boom in dyes, pharmaceuticals and electrical devices. In fact, during the 19th century Germany produced most of the pharmaceuticals sold in the USA, and the main pharmaceutical companies established in New York were founded by German immigrants, notably Charles Pfizer (1849) and George Merck (1891). At the end of the century Germany's chemical industry was focusing on synthetic by-products of coal, including gasoline. In fact, the German chemical industry (BASF, Bayer, Hoechst) dominated the world market for synthetic dyes (accounting for 90% of the world supply of dyestuffs in 1913).

Much of the progress in Physics also came from Germany: in 1876 Ferdinand Braun was the first scientist to study the electrical properties of semiconductors; in 1886 Heinrich Hertz proved the existence of the electromagnetic waves theorized by James Clerk Maxwell's equations and discovered that radio waves can be broadcast and received; in 1895 Wilhelm Roentgen discovered the X rays, light rays that are invisible to the human eye; in 1897 Braun invented the cathode ray tube (CRT) oscilloscope (that would be the foundation for television and computer monitors); in 1900 Max Planck discovered that atoms can emit energy only in discrete amounts, which launched the revolution of Quantum Mechanics; in 1904 Christian Huelsmeyer found a way to detect objects by shooting radio waves at them, the principle of the radar (he called it "telemobiloscope"); and in 1905 Albert Einstein explained the photoelectric effect (another foundation of Quantum Mechanics), explained Brownian motion (thereby removing any doubts about the existence of John Dalton's atoms) and published "The Special Theory of Relativity".

German scientists were also responsible for the agricultural revolution of the 20th century. Justus von Liebig's 1840 book "Organic Chemistry in its Application to Agriculture and Physiology" had predicted that chemistry would revolutionize agriculture and, in particular, explained the potential value of artificial fertilizers. In 1913 Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch at BASF would discover a process for the manufacture of ammonia. Although it was kept secret until World War II, ammonia would eventually become the #1 fertilizer in the world and dramatically increase food production. In 1925 the German chemical industry consolidated in IG-Farben, which would remain the world's largest chemical company until World War II.

Last but not least, Germany also led the revolution in transportation: in 1876 Nikolaus Otto invented the four-cycle internal combustion engine; in 1885 Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach invented the motorcycle; in 1886 Karl Benz built the first gasoline-powered car; and in 1893 Wilhelm Maybach invented the carburetor. In 1900 Ferdinand von Zeppelin built the first rigid dirigible.

It was therefore not a surprise that German companies like Siemens and AEG were the European leaders also in electricity.

The Radio

(Copyright © 2016 Piero Scaruffi)

See the history of the radio.

The diffusion of power lines made it possible for the radio to become a household appliance.

The radio was the first "consumer electronic" device to be introduced to the public, because from the beginning it used electronics.

Both the phonograph (that got electrified much later) and the radio proved an important fact about electronic devices: the difference between the hardware (that has to be powerful and reliable, but, per se, does not "sell") and the software. Radio sales did not boom until there were programs that made it useful and fun for consumers. Ditto for the phonograph: it became a household item after the recording industry made available a library of recordings. Both the radio and the phonograph proved that a new technology is useless unless it comes with "apps". The "apps" of radio were the radio programs, and the apps of the phonograph were the records. Both these new technology did not flourish until radio programs and records multiplied and became really interesting. That's really what sets the "information industry" apart from the communications and transportation industries. The telegraph and the telephone were immediately useful because they are technologies that are also their own apps. Ditto for the airplane and the car. The radio is both communications industry (of limited use back then) and an information industry. As an information industry, it needs "apps". Ditto for television later into the century. (Of course, later into the century people realized that the telephone too can be an information technology, but that happened when the telephone became a computer).


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Surprisingly, the Germans missed the technology of cinema. Already in 1893 Edison's company made movies in New Jersey, but Edison's kinetoscope awas not a movie projector to show a movie to an audience but a personal device for one person to view the movie. In other words, they were rather peepshows than movies. In 1895 Auguste and Louis Lumiere made the first movies that could be projected to an audience (using their cinematograph, a camera that worked as both a recording device and a projecting device, modeled on the sewing machine). Ten short movies were shown at the Grand Cafe in Paris. In 1902 Thomas Tally opened a movie theate in Los Angeles and called it the Electric Theater. In 1910 the first film was shot in Hollywood.

See the history of cinema.

The 1900s

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The 1900 Universal Exposition in Paris featured a moving walkway designed by Albert Speer of New York.

Its centerpiece was the Palace of Electricity, whose steam-powered dynamos provided electricity for all the other pavilions.

The exposition borrowed two ideas from Chicago's Columbian Exposition of 1893: a giant Ferris wheel and an electric-powered moving sidewalk. The Eiffel Tower was covered with thousands of incandescent lights, and the Cineorama synchronized moving pictures and phonograph music projecting via ten synchronized projectors on a 360-degree screen.

General Electric opened the first industrial research laboratory of the USA in 1900 using the barn in Schenectady of engineer Karl Steinmetz and hiring distinguished scientists and engineers for the sole purpose of experimenting. This led to a diversification of products. General Electric started making all sorts of electric components, although most appliances were initially acquired from other inventors.

In 1925 AT&T and Western Electric would establish the most famous of these laboratories, the Bell Telephone Laboratories (known simply as Bell Labs), also in New York.

In 1904 two scientists of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Sandor Just and Franjo Hanaman, invented an electric lamp that used tungsten filaments. This "Tungsram bulb" was brighter and lasted longer the carbon filament lamps invented by Edison. In 1906 General Electric "invented" the same kind of bulb. Initially the "Great White Way" used arc lights, but in 1916 San Francisco commissioned incandesent lighting from General Electric for its Market Street (nicknamed "Path of Gold"). In 1910 Georges Claude demonstrated neon lighting in Paris, which became a favorite of advertisers. By the beginning of World War I most towns in the USA, Britain and Germany had electric street lights, but electric lighting was expensive compared with gas lighting, which was still used by the majority of households. In 1918 the USA mandated the replacement of the old incandescent light bulbs with the new tungsten light bulbs that were more efficient.

By the year 1900 the telegraph had become the backbone of long-distance communications. In 1900 Western Union operated more than 1.5 million kms of telegraph lines and two international undersea cables. In 1914 the same Western Union introduced the first charge card for its customers.

Nothing helped publicize electricity like World War I. News and footage emphasized that the war effort now depended to a large extent on technology, especially radio engineering. At the end of the war less than one third of US households used electricity. By 1929 more than two thirds did.

In 1926 Britain decided to stop the chaos of frequencies and voltages. It instituted the Central Electricity Board to govern the 600 electricity supply companies.

Meawhile, the universities had begun to adapt to the new electrical world. In 1861 the state of Massachusetts had created the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) near Boston, in 1868 New York's senator Ezra Cornell had co-founded Cornell University, in 1869 the state of California had estbalished the University of California (UC) system, and in 1885 California's governor Leland Stanford had founded a university in Palo Alto. In 1883 Cornell University had become the first university to use electricity for lighting, and in 1891 Pasadena's philanthropist Amos Throop founded a university that would be renamed California Institute of Technology (CalTech). In 1881 Japan had created the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in 1885 the University College London had established the first course of electrical engineering in Britain, in 1891 Switzerland created the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, and in 1911 Germany instituted the Kaiser Wilhelm Society (later renamed Max Planck Institute). These new academic centers would remain among the leaders of the high-tech revolution for more than a century. In 1902 steel magnate Andrew Carnegie founded the Carnegie Institution in Washington.

The Bay Area's two main universities, Stanford and UC Berkeley, were focused on the problem of carrying high-tension voltage over long-distances. The Bay Area's electrical power companies used the high-voltage laboratories of these two universities, thus inaugurating industry-academia cooperation and raising a generation of electrical engineers. Stanford's Electrical Engineering Department was headed by Harris Ryan.


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Electricity contributed to a general trend towards a faster and faster world. Karl Benz had built the first gasoline-powered car in 1886, and in 1903 Wilbur and Orville Wright flew the first airplane. Electric motors were applied to both means of transportation. If Gaston Tissandier's 1883 experiment to use an electric motor built by Siemens to propel an airplane was not successful, William Morrison's electric car of 1892 in Chicago created a viable alternative to gasoline-powered cars. But those were times when most vehicles were still drawn by horses. In 1900 the USA produced fewer than 3,000 automobiles while Durant-Dort, the largest producer of horse-drawn vehicles, was selling over 150,000 carriages a year. Gasoline-powered cars would eventually win out, but electric parts would become essential, starting with Charles Kettering's electric self-starter of 1911. The link between the two worlds was perhaps Henry Ford himself, the chief engineer at Detroit's Edison company until 1899, soon to become the most famous car maker in the world.

Airplanes, trains, steamships and cars transported people faster than ever. Telegraph, telephone and radio transmitted messages faster than ever. Electricity transmitted power faster than ever. Thanks to trains, cars and airplanes, the individual could quickly travel anywhere. Thanks to the radio and the telephone, the individual could simultaneously be anywhere.

A major beneficiary was California, that would have been isolated without trains, telegraphs, radios and telephones. Before the railroad and the steamship, there were three ways to reach California from New York: 1. six months by horse carriage; 2. six months by sailship around Cape Horn; 3. by ship to Panama, then overland to the Pacific Ocean, then by ship to California. In 1876 the Transcontinental Express train crossed the nation from New York to San Francisco in 83 hours. In 1913 the the first transcontinental highway opened, the Lincoln Highway, connecting New York to San Francisco. In theory a Ford Model T (maximum speed 70 km/h) could drive those 5,454 kms in less than 80 hours.

The speed at which trains (and telegrams) traveled forced the railways to standardize time. In a country as big and new as the USA, even neighboring towns could have different times. The railways used the telegraph to standardize the time along their routes. Eventually in 1883 the railway companies of the USA and Canada got together to work out a common system, which resulted in the division of the USA into time zones, and global time zones for the entire planet were agreed in 1884.

The railroad, that had improved the speed at which people and goods moved, had been the main engine of growth for the US economy between 1835 and 1890, providing the impetus for the steel and coal industries. Electricity, that improved the speed at which power and information moved, became the main economic driver between 1890 and 1929.

Science vs Technology

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Science and technology had progressed independently in Britain, and so they did in the USA. Until the 1870s technological progress was mainly due to non-scientists, mostly artisans and engineers. Science had explained electrical and chemical phenomena but those explanations were not useful to "invent". Artisans and engineers knew what society needed, scientists knew how nature works: de facto, they were two different jobs, only loosely linked. Many inventors could not even explain why their invention worked. At the turn of the century, starting with the laboratories of the big German chemical companies, the industrial research laboratory began to bridge the gap between science and the economy. Chemistry was the first branch of science with widespread applications in the industry. Science contributed explanation, quality, and optimization; but science still did not invent, or invented by accident.

The situation was even weirder for ordinary uneducated citizens: they had no idea why electricity did what it did. They had no way of understanding why pressing a button turned on the lights or how a voice could be heard thousands of kms away. This created an almost religious faith into the new technology.

The inventors and businesses took advantage of public credulity. Edison himself preached that electricity would create a utopian society (and, incidentally, increase women's intelligence and eliminate sleep) and even marketed an electric medicine called Polyform in 1879, one of the many that appeared on the market because people believed in the magical properties of electricity.

Edison's friend George Beard was the foremost psychologist who experimented with electricity, with results documented in his book "American Nervousness" (1881). They were probably unaware that Luigi Galvani in Italy had discovered that nerve cells are conductors of electricity already a century earlier, in 1771. When Wilhelm Roentgen discovered the X rays (1895) and Edison himself built an X-ray machine for hospitals, the link between health and electricity seemed to be confirmed beyond any reasonable doubt.

Both Edison and Beard were influenced by Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, published in "The Origin Of Species" (1859) and applied by the philosopher Herbert Spencer to societies in "The Social Organism" (1860) and to economies in "Principles of Biology" (1864). Spencer, in particular, promoted the optimistic idea that progress was a general property of the universe and that it was both inevitable but desirable (the latter is the book that introduced the expression. "survival of the fittest"). The missionary Henry Drummond reconciled evolution's brutality with Christian spirituality in "Natural Law in the Spiritual World". It is not a coincidence that science fiction was invented by a follower of Spencer's theories, Herbert-George Wells, who wrote "The Time Machine" (1895), "The Invisible Man" (1897), and "The War of the Worlds" (1898).

Edward Bellamy's "Looking Backward" (1888), that imagined such a utopia, came out of the very beginning of the electric era and became a huge bestseller. William Howells' "A Traveler from Altruria" (1894) was entirely about an electric utopia. Helena Blavatsky, founder in 1875 of the Theosophical Society in New York, wrote in "The Secret Doctrine" (1888) spoke of a universal force (the "fohat") that soon came to be associated with electricity. Karl Steinmetz, a socialist militant who had fled Germany in 1888 and in New York had improved the transformer for Rudolf Eickemeyer (a company acquired in 1893 by General Electric), was one of many electrical engineers who believed that electricity would help create a more equal world. The fact that world's fairs were the number-one propaganda tool for the electrical industry helped cement the quasi-religious charisma of electricity.

As it is often the case, Darwinism had demolished one theology, and electricity immediately created a new one.

The prestige of electricity benefited the few electric engineers in the world, whose social status skyrocketed. They were mostly self-trained because no universities had degrees in electrical engineering until

The Factory

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Factories were actually late-comers to the electrical revolution. Initially they only adopted electricity for lighting. In 1900 they accounted for only 5% of the electrical power produced in the USA. The textile industry that had led the industrial revolution in Britain also led the electrical revolution in the USA: most of Edison's early power plants were built for textile mills. They required good lighting for precision work. Printing presses were also early adopters because they needed to work at night. Early adopters quickly realized that electric lighting was also less polluting and less dangerous than gas lighting. In general, however, the adoption of electricity by factories was much slower than by city transportation. The dynamic was exactly the opposite of the trolley. One factor was the scarcity of electrical engineers and another factor was the confusing multitude of standards.

Then there was the psychological inertia, particularly in the British textile industry that consisted of many well-established mills. Machines of the steam-power era did not have their own motor: the power produced by one steam engine was conveyed by shafts and belts to many machines. Factory owners were reluctant to change that arrangement, so a bulky electric motor was installed to replace the steam engine and run many machines with no motor. It took a couple of decades for factory owners to accept that they could attach a small electric motor to each machine.

Despite using direct current, Sprague's motor (acquired by General Electric) remained the favorite for industrial purposes because it could provide stable power, but it was not ideal for distributing power. The quandary was solved when alternating-current motors improved. Even then not many factories were willing to depend on a power plant owned by somebody else. They were used to own the steam engine. As factories electrified, they wanted to own the generator within their boundaries, and that made the electrification both more expensive and more complicated. The combination of all these factors delayed the electrification of the factory until the 1910s.

The pioneer had been Thomas Edison himself. In 1889 he had opened a fully-electrified factory in New Jersey, using three giant electromagnets to separate iron from sand. In 1891 Thomas Robins invented the rubber conveyor belt for carrying coal and ore that was awarded the grand prize at the Paris Exposition of 1900. Edison's venture failed, but his employee Henry Ford was fascinated by the electrical clockwork.

The advantages of electricity were more obvious in the industries where it enabled new production methods rather than just improving efficiency. For example, electricity could concentrate more heat in electric furnaces than the traditional furnace, and therefore enabled the high-volume production of aluminum and chemical compounds.

Electricity started replacing steam at the same time that steel was replacing iron. The combination of steel and electricity caused a second industrial revolution. The protagonist of this revolution was the machine, that increasingly replaced humans. The factory became more and more automated.

Electricity did not replace the old sources of power: it allowed to distribute power. Electricity was generated by using water or coal, just like the old steam engines; and electricity was used to generate mechanical movement, just like the old steam engines. The real difference was that electricity can be sent over a cable to another location, just like a telegram. The old sources of power, namely water wheels and steam engines, did not allow for long-distance power distribution because they needed to be located near the factory that used them. Electricity, on the other hand, could be distributed over long distances. The electrical power plant could produce energy for multiple factories, and the factory did not need to take care of its own power production anymore. Electricity allowed factories to be located far from the production of energy.

Electric motors were also easier to transport than steam engines With electrical power the layout of the factory became more flexible: wires could be bent, extended, shortened... and the engine itself could be moved. Electric motors made very large factories easier to design, and electric transmission allowed factories to be moved to suburbs.

The mills that used a steam engine were typically multi-storey buildings to maximize the benefit of the engine for all the machines. When all the machines got their own electric motor, the factory designer could focus on other factors. In particular, it made more sense to have the machines laid out in a sequence than spread on different floors of the building. The car-manufacturing plant that Henry Ford opened at Highland Park in 1910 spread over a large area, was fully electrified, and was designed to optimize the movement of materials.

The twin processes of automation and electrification culminated in 1913 when Henry Ford installed the first assembly line in Detroit.

Theoretically, the assembly line could have been implemented with steam power, but de facto it was electricity that enabled the assembly line, and, in general, a massive productivity increase.

The electrical factory was less about brute strength, less about skills, more about routine and more about cost saving. Therefore it ended up having an impact on gender relations: women were welcome in factories and they welcomed the opportunity. World War I made them even more necessary as many men were sent overseas or in military bases.

The House

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The house of the average US citizen had changed dramatically during the 19th century. By the end of the century the typical home was divided into special-purpose rooms, notably the kitchen, the indoor bathroom, and the bedroom. The internal wall eventually divided even the bedroom into separate bedrooms for each member of the family, and carved out private spaces for social events (the living room), for home entertainment (the family room) and for work or hobbies (the studio or workplace). Anybody who could afford servants also needed rooms for them.

In big cities it had become normal to live in apartments, not in single-family homes. The average house had acquired such luxuries as gas lighting and heaters (powered by a steam engine). Electricity was a luxury for the real rich households: an Edison light bulb cost one dollar, which was roughly the daily wage of an average worker. The rich electrified their homes to show off, not really to save on labor (they generally retained the same servants), and sometimes simply to entertain their children (electric toys predate electric appliances). For example, in 1897 Morton Carlisle's and Robert Finch's company in Ohio invented the electric toy train.

The rich homes and the offices were also the only ones that were able to afford the small electric fan when Westinghouse began making them in 1896.

In 1910 still 90% of US households didn't have electricity, and in most countries nobody but the government and the super-rich had electricity. The fact that electric lighting was safer, cleaner and healthier than gas lighting did not help those who just could not afford it or had to way to connect their home to a power plant. For everybody, however, there was one visible change: the house was well-lit in the evening.

Samuel Insull, president of the Edison company in Chicago, is the businessman credited with making electricity affordable for the masses after his reform of the rates in 1897.

In 1915 General Electric exhibited an all-electric home at the Panama-Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco. At the end of World War I the mass electrification of the nation began in earnest. General Electric was instrumental in spreading the gospel: in 1922 it hired Bruce Barton's New York advertising agency to run the marketing campaign for its electric appliances. Soon the public was targeted with countless ads about new electrical inventions.

Lighting and the radio caused two opposite revolutions in the social life of the family unit. Electric light provided the same uniform lighting to every room in the house. It was therefore unnecessary to assemble in the same room. Previouly, the fireplace had been the center of social life because it provided the most light and heat for the family. Gas lighting was a delicate affair, left to adults (parents or servants), but electrical light was trivial, and children could turn on and off the lights in their rooms at will. There was no need for the entire family to share the same room in the evening. On the other hand the radio had the opposite effect: the whole family sat by the radio to listen to news, comedy and sports. In 1922 there were only 60,000 radios in the USA, but in 1929 there were more than 10 million out of 30 million households, roughly the same percentage that had electrical lights.


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The electrical power plant produced energy for the entire city. Energy production became centralized the way food production had become centralized 5000 years earlier. A new business was born: "utility" companies that charge a fee for energy. Power plants caused the price of electricity to fall. The city was flooded with cheap and plentiful energy. Electricity became more affordable because it was delivered to the home, as opposed to steam power or water power: eventually, homes could afford the energy that only factories previously enjoyed. The democratization of energy enabled a whole new economy of electrical appliances. The same companies that sold electricity started selling electrical appliances to households. Appliances replaced servants, causing a social revolution.

The first hand-powered appliances for the home appeared before 1893: the clothes dryer had been invented in France at the beginning of the century, the washing machine had been invented by William Blackstone of Indiana in 1874, the carpet sweeper by John Crane of Massachusetts in 1859, and the dishwasher by Josephine Cochrane of Illinois in 1886.

Cochrane displayed her dishwasher at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, an exhibition that included an electric pavilion by the Ansonia Electric Company of Chicago.

This pavilion displayed, next to all sorts of electric supplies, a thermostat to control electric heat made by the Electric Thermostat Company of Minnesota and an "electric kitchen" by the Carpenter Electric Company of Minnesota, designed by Ellen Richards, the first woman graduate of the MIT. (stove, water heater, dishwasher, iron, fan).

The Charles Carpenter's Electric Company also introduced the electric iron (first mentioned in 1890 in Scientific American) and the electric oven (first mentioned in 1893 in Electrical Engineer).

Isaac Singer of New York, one of the first inventor to think in terms of mass production, who had invented his mechanical sewing machine for home use in 1851, demonstrated a prototype electric sewing machine at the Philadelphia Electric Exhibition of 1885 based on the motor designed by Philip Diehl

In 1887 Diehl, after leaving Singer, had the idea of mounting a fan on the motor of a sewing machine and hanging it from the ceiling, thereby inventing the ceiling fan.

Crompton & Company in Britain had an electric heater and an electric toaster already in 1893. General Electric came out with its own electric oven (invented in 1897 by William Hadaway) and its own electric toaster (invented in 1909 by Frank Shailor).

In 1906 Peter Henlein in Germany built the self-contained battery-driven watch, the crystal quartz watch. In 1916 Henry Warren in Boston built the first clock to run on an electric motor, the first "synchronous" electric clock that did not contain a timekeeping oscillator but instead counted the oscillations of the alternating current. Warren realized that a clock could be made using the frequency of the alternating current (60 Hz in the USA), that was was more reliable than spring-based clockworks. Warren's Telechron company was so successful that General Electric invested in it from the beginning.

The vacuum cleaner was invented in 1901 by Hubert Booth in Britain, but the model that William Hoover's the Electric Suction Sweeper Company in Ohio started selling in 1908 was acquired from its inventor James Spangler who then joined the Hoover company.

In 1902 Willis Carrier of Buffalo (New York) invented the air conditioner (ironically, in a city that is quite cold).

In 1903 Earl Richardson of California started selling the first electric iron that was truly successful, later renamed Hotpoint iron and acquired by George Hughes, who in 1904 had invented an electric range. Hughes' company of Chicago (that was eventually renamed Hotpoint Electric Heating Company) became famous for its "electric cook stove" of 1910.

The first electric stove had probably been invented by William Hadaway of General Electric in 1896 but GE's first truly successful electric range only came out in 1912.

In 1908 Alva Fisher at Hurley Electric Laundry Equipment of Chicago invented the electric washing machine.

The electric dishwasher was invented by the Walker Brothers Company of Philadelphia in 1913.

In 1911 General Electric introduced the first commercial refrigerator, invented in France by the French monk Marcel Audiffren, but it was in 1913 that Fred Wolf of Indiana unveiled an electric refrigerator for the home. In 1914 Nathaniel Wales founded the Electro-Automatic Refrigerating Company (later Kelvinator) in Detroit to produce electric refrigerators for the home, and these were the first refrigerators produced in the USA on a large scale; and in 1916 Alfred Mellowes founded the Guardian Frigerator Company (later Frigidaire) in Indiana that was purchased by General Motors in 1919. The cabinets of these refrigerators were made of wood to imitate furniture cabinetry. Only in 1927 did GE introduce a refrigerator housed in an all-steel cabinet.

During the 1900s the electric appliances that automated household chores entered the mail-order catalogs, but the vast majority of consumer products listed in the main mailorder catalogs were not electric until the end of World War I.

In the 1920s the electric appliances became very popular and two more joined them: the garbage disposal, invented in 1927 John Hammes of Wisconsin and sold by the Emerson Electric Company; and the electric clothes dryer, invented in 1936 by Ross Moore of North Dakota, that the Hamilton Manufacturing Company of Wisconsin started selling in 1938.

Nonetheless, the electric stove and the electric refrigerator remained a rarity for the middle class until World War II. According to a census by the National Electric Light Association, in 1921 there were only 150 refrigerators in New York and only 200 in Boston. The rest of the country still relied on the ice box, with street vendors selling ice on horse carts. Only at this point were electrical appliances marketed as replacement for servants. The rich didn't care about replacing an expensive human being with a cheap machine, but the middle class did. And the middle class was also painfully aware of a social transformation that made the servant rarer and more expensive: a whole new range of white-collar occupations were being created for women who wanted to work, such as typist and clerk.

The electrical appliances didn't quite liberate women from household chores, but it liberated men from marriage. The apartment equipped with electrical appliances made it easier for men to remain unmarried. Unmarried men left the boarding houses (like the one that Edison had set up in Menlo Park, run by Sarah Jordan, one of the first homes in the world to be lit by electricity) and moved into apartments.

In 1931 the National Electric Light Association launched a national campaign to promote the refrigerator that instantaneously multiplied the number of units.

At the New York World's Fair of 1939 Westinghouse used the robot Elektro and his dog Sparko to promote its refrigerator and freezer.

Meanwhile, in 1888 George Eastman's Kodak in Rochester (New York state) had introduced the first consumer camera, and in 1895 he had launched the pocket camera that used roll film (in 1898 he adopted what would become the standard size for all cameras), and also provided the service to develop the photographs.

In 1898 Valdemar Poulsen had demonstrated magnetic recording (the "telegraphone") in Denmark. And in 1927 Philo Farnsworth invented the electronic television in San Francisco.

One of the first inventions to come out of the Bell Labs was electrical recording, developed by Joseph Maxfield and Henry Harrison. In the same year Brunswick in Iowa launched the first electric phonograph, the Panatrope, that used an electric motor and a vacuum tube to amplify the sound (a technology licensed from General Electric).

Over time cheap and ubiquitous electricity enabled another social revolution: the shift from public entertainment (theater, cinema, amusement park) to private entertainment (radio, phonograph and later television).

The home was being populated with electrical servants (toasters, vacuum cleaners, etc) and electrical entertainers (radio, phonograph, etc).

The Battery

Meanwhile, the battery continued to evolve. In 1866 Georges Leclanche in France developed the "wet" cell and in 1887 Carl Gassner in Germany and Sakizou Yai in Japan developed the "dry" cell. Yai's battery was exhibited at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893.

These batteries were smaller and cheaper. The battery was finally becoming a household item. The National Carbon Company (later renamed Energizer), founded in Cleveland in 1886 by a former Brush Electric Company executive, Washington Lawrence, started selling the Columbia battery in 1896

In 1899 American Electrical Novelty and Manufacturing Company (later renamed Eveready), founded by Russian inventor Conrad Hubert in New York, started selling the electric flashlight invented by David Misell in England.

Batteries were used by telephones and even by cars (for the igniter, for the magneto and, after 1911, for the electric starter). The dry battery enabled a new generation of consumer goods.

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