Powering a Generation of Change

The website Powering a Generation of Change launched in early 1998 to document and present the history of radical changes then taking place in the US electric power industry. From the days of Thomas Edison’s Pearl Street power plant in New York City (as indicated by one of the plant’s generators in the site’s banner image), engineers and investors have developed a way of providing electricity called centralized power. Massive power plants generate electricity and feed regional networks of transmission lines. Those lines feed local distribution networks that in turn carry power to individual buildings. For many decades people felt these systems worked best as monopolies, with non-competing companies operating power plants and electric lines. After the energy crises of the 1970s, many people questioned that way of organizing this fundamental infrastructure. During the 1990s, power generation and transmission were separated in a process called restructuring by some, deregulation by others. Generating companies began competing with each other while transmission companies continued as monopolies. Consequences wrought by that change still resonate decades later.

In 1996, staff in the Electricity Collections at the National Museum of American History decided to document the emerging changes in the technical and economic structures of the century-old power industry. Funded by industry donations, they hoped “to collect and present a variety of materials on the World Wide Web which will help us all better understand electric power restructuring.” They constructed a website using a new design technique called frames and presented a mix of old and contemporary historical materials to help visitors understand the background, technology, vocabulary, and near-term affects of restructuring. They conducted oral history interviews with industry leaders, and gathered images and documents for the research collection. As more people gained access to the internet other sites posted more material and provided faster updates. Academic scholars and news organizations also began documenting and analyzing restructuring’s history. The Powering Project ended and Powering a Generation was retired in 2024.

For access to electric power and other objects, you may search the Smithsonian’s Collections search site. For access to related archives, you may visit the museum Archives Center’s Collections page.

Website screenshot
This screenshot captures the home page of the former Powering a Generation of Change website. View an archived site snapshot.