A Brief History of Electricity

As a premier electrical services provider in Southern California, it is not only an honor to provide electrical repair and installation services, but to also educate our customers. Here, we will reflect on the history of electricity, which powers every modern device and electronic system. In our timeline of electrical history, we will reflect on key milestones and events over the past 300 years.

Pre-Industrial History of Electricity

Electricity has always existed, long before humans could harness it. In 500 B.C., Thales of Miletus discovered static electricity by rubbing fur on amber. This summary focuses on more recent early achievements.

  • 17th Century – The earliest theories about electricity were published by English physician and physicist William Gilbert in his book, De Magnete. In 1675, English chemist and physicist Robert William Boyle drafted Experiments and Notes about the Mechanical Origin or Production of Electricity.
  • 18th Century – English scientist Stephen Gray demonstrated that a wire could carry small static charges, discovering electricity’s conductive properties. In 1752, American statesman and inventor Benjamin Franklin conducted his famous kite experiment in a thunderstorm. This resulted in quite a shock, but the experiment proved lightning was electricity.
  • 19th Century – In the early 1800s, researchers and businessmen were hard at work creating electrical innovations. They included Italian scientist Alessandro Volta, the inventor of the electric battery, and Michael Faraday, who in 1831 discovered that moving magnets within copper wire could generate electricity.

The War of the Currents

The late 19th century was a time of innovation and competition. Electric power in homes was yet to become mainstream, but there was no shortage of achievements during this time.

  • 1879 – Thomas Edison invented the incandescent light bulb powered by direct current (DC). Edison’s bulbs could be powered at low voltage and made indoor electric lighting practical. The first public electric lighting system, using alternating current (AC)-powered arc lamps, was installed in Cleveland, Ohio, around this time.
  • 1882 – The first electric power plant in the U.S. opened in Manhattan, at Pearl Street Station. This electrical distribution system, created by Edison, delivered electricity directly to buildings and homes in New York City.
  • 1893 – The competition between Edison’s DC system and George Westinghouse’s and Nikola Tesla’s AC system turned into “the War of the Currents”. Although a student of Edison, Tesla believed AC was better as power could be efficiently converted to higher or lower voltages.
  • 1893 – In a major victory, AC technology from Westinghouse was contracted for use at the Chicago World’s Fair, rather than DC power from General Electric.
  • 1896 – In what’s considered the end of the War of the Currents, AC technology was chosen to power the Niagara Falls hydroelectric generator. It transmitted electricity to Buffalo, New York, more than 20 miles away. This milestone would eventually lead to AC becoming the standard for electricity in the U.S., as it was more efficient and less costly.

The Modern History of Electricity

Towards the turn of the century, the industry saw the rise of professional electricians. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers was founded in 1891, while the National Electrical Contractors Association was formed in 1901. The Rural Electrification Administration was created by an executive order issued by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1935; the Rural Electrification Act was enacted in 1936.

The use of electricity spread rapidly. By 1945, 85% of residences in the U.S. were powered by electricity. Consumer appliances such as refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, and washing machines were becoming more commonplace in the 1950s. Just about all U.S. homes were electrically powered by 1960. As knowledge of electrical safety grew, the ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) would become required by law in 1971.

The first wind farm in the U.S. began operating in 1980. The use of renewable energy, including wind, solar, and hydroelectric power, rather than fossil fuels, has grown in popularity ever since.

Contact Express Electrical Services

A leading electrical contractor providing electrical installation, repair, and maintenance services in Los Angeles, Express Electrical Services is open for business during the COVID-19 pandemic. We have implemented social distancing and the use of sanitizers and PPE to keep our customers and technicians safe. Our team is available 24/7 for emergencies. Call 855-220-1307 to request assistance by a certified electrician.