Generating Change

Organizational and technological innovations in electricity around 1900 ushered in a new industrial revolution. Electrical lighting and motors changed the look of factories and cities. Centrally generated electricity allowed businesses to locate in new areas and become more efficient. These successes relied on the creation of large integrated systems, mostly run by corporations as state-regulated monopolies.

Olympia Mills, Columbia, South Carolina, about 1905

Olympia Mills, Columbia, South Carolina, about 1905

The all-electric Olympia Mills opened in 1899. Explosive cotton dust in the air made the switch from open gas lamps to electric lights desirable.

Underwood & Underwood Glass Stereograph Collection, 1895-1921

Westinghouse motor, 1888

Steam engines disappeared slowly. In 1899, electricity provided less than 5 percent of primary horsepower in manufacturing, 50 percent by 1919, and 75 percent by 1929.

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Edison carbon lamp, about 1886

After his 1879 public demonstration of lighting, inventor Thomas Edison developed the many other necessary pieces of an electrical system—including dynamos, transformers, and meters.

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Westinghouse tantalum mill lamp, about 1908

Improved lighting drove industry to adopt electricity. The use of motors came later.

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Westinghouse stopper lamp, about 1894

Between 1893 and 1897, Westinghouse made two-piece stopper lamps. This made the company more competitive by avoiding Edison’s one-piece bulb patent.

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Westinghouse transformer, about 1889

Westinghouse promoted AC (alternating current) while Edison favored a DC (direct current) system. While less safe than DC, the AC system made transmission easier.

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Reddy-Kilowatt advertising puppet, 1934

Even demand is important to the efficient operation of electric systems. Power companies advertised electricity to increase demand and recover investment in infrastructure systems.

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Fisk Street Station, Chicago, about 1907

Fisk Street Station, Chicago, about 1907

In 1903 entrepreneur Samuel Insull achieved economy of scale with efficient steam turbine generators. He offered differential rates and advocated for a state-regulated monopoly.

The success of electricity required a way to distribute it. Inventions such as insulated cables, transformers, and generators made the widespread distribution of electricity possible.

Electrical transmission cable, 1897

Electrical transmission cable, 1897

Electrical transmission cable, 1897

Electrical transmission cable, 1897

Pennsylvania coal mine breaker building, 1920s

Pennsylvania coal mine breaker building, 1920s

Electricity generated by coal came at significant human and environmental costs. Between 1860 and 1910 the production of energy from coal rose by 2,700 percent.

Courtesy of Library of Congress