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Electrification History 1 - Early Years


We mostly take the ready availability of electricity for granted, turning off the radio alarm in the morning, switching on the bedside lamp, pouring a cup of coffee from the machine that automatically started brewing it a few minutes before the alarm went off, tuning in to the morning news show on TV. Yet without the building of myriad power plants and the stringing of countless miles of wire, without the constant monitoring of the electric power grid and the juggling of supply and demand, that ready surge of electrons would not exist—nor would the modern world as we know it. Without a reliable supply of electricity, we couldn't use the lightweight, powerful electric motors that make elevators possible; without elevators, skyscrapers wouldn't exist—and the dramatic skylines of the world's major metropolises would be considerably more modest. Without a reliable supply of electricity, kidney dialysis machines and other life support equipment would be useless to the many patients who depend on them. Without electricity to power traffic lights, the commute to and from work would be mayhem—or maybe not. Without electricity to power automobile factories, we wouldn't have streets and highways full of automobiles either. Indeed, more than half the engineering achievements celebrated in this book would not have been possible without the widespread electrification that occurred in the 20th century, not only in the United States but also in other industrialized nations around the world.

The story of electrification in the United States is a story of public and private investment and of the engineers whose innovations moved the industry forward. Early in the century the distribution of electric power was largely concentrated in cities served by privately owned utility companies (known today as investor-owned utilities, or IOUs). After Thomas Edison's work led to the first commercial power plant in 1882, these companies played a dominant role in constructing an advanced and complex electrical system that would become a model for the world. As the 20th century dawned, capacity expanded rapidly while continuous innovation improved the system. In 1903, for example, the first steam turbine generator, pioneered by Charles Curtis, was put into operation at the Newport Electric Corporation in Newport, Rhode Island. In 1917 an IOU known as American Gas & Electric (AG&E) established the first long-distance high-voltage transmission line-and the plant from which the line ran was the first major steam plant to be built at the mouth of the coal mine that supplied its fuel, virtually eliminating transportation costs. A year later pulverized coal was used as fuel for the first time at the Oneida Street Plant in Milwaukee. All of these innovations, and more, emerged from engineers working in the private sector. By the end of the century, IOUs would still account for almost 75 percent of electric utility generating capacity in the United States, even as they came to be outnumbered by other types of utilities and nonutility power producers. In 1998, for example, the country's 3,170 electric utilities produced 728 gigawatts of power-530 gigawatts of which were produced by 239 IOUs. (The approximately 2,110 nonutilities generated another 98 gigawatts.)

Successful at building plants to service large concentrated markets, IOUs in the first third of the century made relatively limited forays into rural America, where scattered farm families were isolated by distance from urban generating plants. As the inhabitants of New York, Chicago, and other cities across the country enjoyed the gleaming lights and the new labor-saving devices powered by electricity, life in rural America remained difficult. On 90 percent of American farms the only artificial light came from smoky, fumy lamps. Water had to be pumped by hand and heated over wood-burning stoves. Virtually every chore required manual labor; for many farm wives the most tiresome of all was the seemingly endless backbreaking drudgery of washing and ironing the family's clothes and linens.


     1- Early Years
     2- Rural Electrification
     3 - AC or DC?
     4 - Power Generators
     5- Looking Forward
     Essay - E. Linn Draper, Jr.

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