A Concise History Of Harnessed Electricity

Posted on Nov 21, 2014


Harnessed electricity, or access to it, is something most Americans take for granted, until they go camping, fishing or otherwise ‘unplug’ from society. However many countries in the world don’t have the same expectations for alternating current that Americans do, due to the unreliable nature of their local power grids, or the absence of adequate electrical infrastructure or power generating facilities. Many South American and Middle Eastern countries have electricity rations, where electricity is only available to certain areas in the city, only for parts of the day, sometimes at random. Feeling privileged? We do! So now that we have some context to compare against let’s explore this how neo-underrated modern marvel came into existence.

18th century globe-trotter, scholar, and founding-father-extraordinaire, Benjamin Franklin is credited with the first intense study of electricity itself, however many predecessors paved the way for his important research.  He conducted extensive research in electricity, selling his possessions to fund his work. In June 1752 he is reputed to have attached a metal key to the bottom of a dampened kite string and flown the kite in a storm-threatened sky. A succession of sparks jumping from the key to the back of his hand showed that lightning was indeed electrical in nature. From there things really accelerate.

Courtesy of the Historical Archive.com

  • 1800 First electric battery invented by Alessandro Volta. The “volt” is named in his honor.
  • 1808 Humphrey Davy invented the first effective “arc lamp.” The arc lamp was a piece of carbon that glowed when attached to a battery by wires.
  • 1820 Separate experiments by Hans Christian Oersted, A.M. Ampere, and D.F.G. Arago confirmed the relationship between electricity and magnetism.
  • 1821 The first electric motor was invented by Michael Faraday.
  • 1826 Georg Ohm defined the relationship between power, voltage, current and resistance in “Ohms Law.”
  • 1831 Using his invention the induction ring, Michael Faraday proved that electricity can be induced (made) by changes in an electromagnetic field. Faraday’s experiments about how electric current works, led to the understanding of electrical transformers and motors.
  • 1832 Using Faraday’s principles, Hippolyte Pixii built the first “dynamo,” an electric generator capable of delivering power for industry. Pixxi’s dynamo used a crank to rotate a magnet around a a piece of iron wrapped with wire. Because this devise used a coil of wire, it produced spikes of electric current followed by no current.
  • 1835 Joseph Henry invented the electrical relay, used to send electrical currents long distances.
  • 1837 Thomas Davenport invented the electric motor, an invention that is used in most electrical appliances today.
  • 1839 Sir William Robert Grove developed the first fuel cell, a device that produces electrical energy by combining hydrogen and oxygen.
  • 1841 James Prescott Joule showed that energy is conserved in electrical circuits involving current flow, thermal heating, and chemical transformations. A unit of thermal energy, the Joule, was named after him.
  • 1844 Samuel Morse invented the electric telegraph, a machine that could send messages long distances across wire, giving us Morse Code.
  • 1860′s Mathematical theory of electromagnetic fields published. J.C. Maxwell created a new era of physics when he unified magnetism, electricity and light. Maxwell’s four laws of electrodynamics (“Maxwell’s Equations”) eventually led to electric power, radios, and television (and eventually computers and electric cars).
  • 1876 Charles Brush invented the “open coil” dynamo (or generator) that could produce a steady current of electricity.
  • 1878 Joseph Swan, and Englishman, invented the first incandescent light bulb (also called an “electric lamp”). His newly invented light bulb burned out (too) quickly though.
  • Charles Brush developed an arc lamp that could be powered by a generator.
  • Thomas Edison founded the Edison Electric Light Co. (US), in New York City. He bought a number of patents related to electric lighting and began experiments to develop a practical, long-lasting light bulb.
  • 1879 After many experiments, Thomas Edison invented an incandescent light bulb that could be used for about 40 hours without burning out. By 1880 his bulbs could be used for 1200 hours.
  • 1879 Electric lights (Brush arc lamps) were first used for public street lighting, in Cleveland, Ohio.
  • California Electric Light Company, Inc. in San Francisco was the first electric company to sell electricity to customers. The company used two small Brush generators to power 21 Brush arc light lamps.
  • 1881 The electric streetcar was invented by E.W. v. Siemens
  • 1882 Thomas Edison opened the Pearl Street Power Station in New York City. The Pearl Street Station was one of the world’s first central electric power plants and could power 5,000 lights. The Pearl Street Station was a direct current (DC) power system, unlike the power systems that we use today which use alternating current (AC).
  • The first hydroelectric station opened in Wisconsin.
  • Edward Johnson first put electric lights on a Christmas tree.
  • 1883 Arch-rival of Edison, Nikola Tesla invented the “Tesla coil”, a transformer that changes electricity from low voltage to high voltage making it easier to transport over long distances. The transformer was an important part of Tesla’s alternating current (AC) system, still used to deliver electricity today.
  • 1884 Nikola Tesla invented the electric alternator, an electric generator that produces alternating current (AC). Until this time electricity had been generated using direct current (DC) from batteries. AC electrical systems are better for sending electricity over long distances.
  • Steam turbine generator, capable of generating huge amounts of electricity, was invented by Sir Charles Algernon Parsons.
  • 1886 William Stanley developed the induction coil transformer and an alternating current electric system.
  • 1888 Nikola Tesla demonstrated the first “polyphase” alternating current (AC) electrical system. His AC system including everything needed for electricity production and use: generator, transformers, transmission system, motor (used in appliances) and lights. George Westinghouse, the head of Westinghouse Electric Company, bought the patent rights to the AC system.
  • The first use of a large windmill to generate electricity was built by inventor Charles Brush. He used the windmill to charge batteries in the cellar of his home in Cleveland, Ohio.
  • 1893 The Westinghouse Electric Company used an alternating current (AC) system to light the Chicago World’s Fair.
  • A 22 mile AC power line was opened, sending electricity from Folsom Powerhouse in California to Sacramento.
  • 1896 An AC power line that transmits power 20 miles from Niagara Falls to Buffalo, New York was opened.
  • 1897 The Electron discovered by Joseph John Thomson.
  • 1900 Highest voltage transmission line 60 Kilo volt.
  • 1901 First power line between USA and Canada at Niagara Falls.
  • 1902 5-Megawatt turbine for Fisk St. Station (Chicago).
  • 1903 First successful gas turbine (France).
  • World’s first all turbine electrical power station (Chicago).
  • Shawinigan Water & Power installs world’s largest generator (5,000 Watts) and world’s largest and highest voltage line—136 Km and 50 Kilo volts (to Montreal).
  • 1908 Electric vacuum cleaner – J. Spangler…
  • 1909 First pumped storage plant (Switzerland).
  • 1911 Electric air conditioning – W. Carrier.
  • Electric refrigerator – A. Goss.
  • 1920 Federal Power Commission (FPC).
  • 1921 Lakeside Power Plant in Wisconsin becomes the world’s first power plant to burn only pulverized coal.
  • 1922 Connecticut Valley Power Exchange (CONVEX) starts, pioneering interconnection between utilities.
  • 1923 Photoelectric cells were discovered.
  • 1928 Construction of Boulder Dam begins.
  • Federal Trade Commission begins investigation of holding companies.
  • 1933 Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) established.
  • 1935 Public Utility Holding Company Act.
  • Federal Power Act.
  • Securities and Exchange Commission.
  • Bonneville Power Administration.
  • First night baseball game in major leagues (Reds vs. Phillies) was played in Ohio on May 24th.
  • 1936 Highest steam temperature reaches 900 degrees Fahrenheit vs. 600 degrees Fahrenheit in early 1920s.
  • Boulder (Hoover) Dam was completed. A 287 Kilo volt power line stretched 266 miles to Boulder (Hoover) Dam.
  • Rural Electrification Act.
  • 1947 Transistor invented by scientists at Bell Telephone Laboratories.
  • 1953 First 345 Kilo volt transmission line.
  • First nuclear power station ordered in England.
  • 1954 World’s first nuclear power plant (Russia) started generating electricity.
  • First high voltage direct current (HVDC) line (20 megawatts/1900 Kilovolts, 96 Km).
  • Atomic Energy Act of 1954 allows private ownership of nuclear reactors.
  • 1957 Shipping port Reactor in Pennsylvania was the first nuclear power plant to provide electricity to customers in the U.S.
  • Present day advances include electric cars, counties communications and leisure devices, and greater focus on photovoltaic’s (solar power).