Fascinating Facts About the Early Electric Age


Electricity has become so commonplace that we tend to only notice it when it’s not there, but in terms of technological innovations, it’s actually fairly new. It took a lot of concerted effort, and a lot of trial and error, to develop electricity into one of the must-have utilities.

Early efforts at bringing electricity to the masses were fraught with tragic mistakes and misunderstandings, along with some rather odd ideas about what electric power could and couldn’t do. It took decades to learn how to handle the potent utility safely, and to figure out what would work and what was less than helpful when it came to electrical appliances. Then too, the unknowns of the early days of electricity–and some odd professional rivalries–have made a lasting impact on the way that different countries consume and use electricity to this day. 

10. It wasn’t the obvious solution that we now consider it to be 

These days, electricity seems like the obvious solution to so many problems: it has become so normalized in so much of the world that in many countries, it’s illegal for electric providers to shut off access during certain times of year. But it took a long time for the convenience of electricity to catch on. Joseph Swan is credited with the invention of the incandescent light bulb in 1878, and in that same year the first street lighting and first hydroelectric plants also came about; but by 1925, only about half of homes in the US had electricity powering them. 

The main source of trouble was that a lot of the problems that electricity aimed to solve were already taken care of–if in a dirty, less-than-efficient way–by gas. Gas lighting, gas-powered stoves, water heaters, and so on already existed and were in many cases more accessible for the poor than electric options. Other problems solved by electricity were just not considered to be that important; instead, they were looked at as a luxury for the rich. It took aggressive marketing efforts to convince the average person that electricity was the better alternative–including multiple exhibitions, notably the World’s Fair and London’s Great Exhibition. 

9. People had some very odd ideas of what electricity could do

Once electricity began taking off, leaving the purely academic and theoretical stage and starting to enter homes via power plants and home wiring, a whole new industry sprung up around electrical devices. The only problem was that people just didn’t really understand what electricity was, how it worked, or what it did (or could and couldn’t do), so some of the early inventions and consumer goods were a little strange. Many were actively dangerous, and some were outright deadly. For example: a tablecloth with built-in sockets to plug in individual lamps, so that each diner had a light directly next to their plate. Of course, the wiring is uninsulated, so if any liquid spilled on it while it was being used (which might well happen during a meal), it could be lethal. There was also a machine that included two metal pipes for the user to hold onto, while a doctor (or other assistant) jolted them with electrical shocks in order to treat any number of conditions from pain to gangrene to heart disease. 

Another product was the “electrical spray and vapor bath,” which is basically what it sounds like, according to the patent filing: “The principal object of my invention is to provide a simple bath in which electric currents may be applied to the human system in the most efficient manner and in the greatest possible variety of ways, while at the same time the bath may be used independently for giving Russian and Turkish baths without the use of the electric current, and to this end I have designed the apparatus hereinafter to be described and claimed.” That’s right: the product was designed to pass electricity through the body of the user, with or without water. 

In short, because Victorian and Edwardian era consumers just didn’t fully understand electricity, they ended up making (and buying) a lot of highly dangerous products, until people started to understand the dangers, and safety regulations began to go into effect.

8. The battle for electrical formats got really intense

“The War of the Currents” is one of many terms used to describe the commercial fight between rival inventors and businesses over competing systems of electrical power: alternating current (AC) and direct current (DC). The pitched battle involved industrial espionage, cutthroat mergers, and, as many people possibly already know: many, many dead animals, killed by electrocution to try and prove a point. 

It’s worth noting that Edison did not–as commonly believed–invent electrical light. Arc lighting already existed, but was too intense for small indoor places like a home. Edison’s incandescent light solved that problem, and gave Edison an additional bright idea: start a company to supply electricity to run the new, home lamps. He designed the system based on the gas lighting systems used in major cities, and thus DC power was born. Useful in tightly-packed cities, where the cost to install the infrastructure could be covered by many subscribers, its main drawback was that it required more plants to supply power. The lower voltage of electricity and other factors meant that it was most efficient for customers within 1 mile (2.2 km) of the power station.

Just as DC distribution began to take off, Nikola Tesla’s invention of the AC motor solved the problem that George Westinghouse (another titan of industry) had run into in deploying AC power across the country: to offset the cost of installation, they needed to be able to supply power 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. To do that, they needed a specialized, brand-new kind of motor. Thus the battle began.

Westinghouse went after the very kind of contracts that Edison’s Electric Light Company was ill-suited for, and in his desire to catch up to Edison, even offered to build new stations under cost. Infuriated at the practices and of course at the loss of revenues, Edison resorted to sabotage, through hyping of newspaper stories of AC linemen being electrocuted, and through a jilted Westinghouse employee, arranging demonstrations that exaggerated the dangers of AC power. The demonstrations included electrocuting stray dogs, getting AC power to be used for executing a criminal, and a film depicting the death by electrocution of Topsy the elephant. 

Ultimately, while Edison did his level best to drag AC power through the mud, it would go on to win the day: AC won the day, thanks to better engineering and better deployment–along with George Westinghouse’s willingness to dip into his money from other ventures to offset the cost of installation. 

7. Early home wiring was mostly done by amateurs and enthusiasts, with predictable results

It may seem incredible, but there was a significant gap of time between the development of electrical power and the development of safety regulations and trained professionals to work with the utility. Home wiring efforts were initially undertaken just as often by enthusiastic amateurs and self-taught electrical engineers as by anyone who had real practice. The results of that are fairly easy to predict: a lot of people wired their houses in ways that led to electrical fires and–of course–accidental electrocution. 

One of the issues is that, just as the general public didn’t know much about what is and isn’t an appropriate and safe electrical appliance, they also often didn’t know about the need for insulation of electrical wires. Some of the earliest home electrical efforts involved a lot of naked wires, which of course couldn’t be touched. But of course, people quickly realized that they needed to create a barrier between the wires and the people and animals that might accidentally touch them. But few consumers knew anything about electrical grounding, or insulation, or anything like that–so they used some rather odd materials, such as paper, wood, or cloth.

Interestingly, some very old homes may still have the obsolete fabric-wrapped wiring systems in place. It’s common enough that building inspectors are taught how to recognize the fabric insulation by brand and by sight. Needless to say, cloth is not exactly a great material for insulating electrical wires; fabric is extremely susceptible to damage–whether from water, air, or just plain age–leading to shorts and increasing tendency for electrical fires and dangerous electric shocks. Rubber came about as a material fairly quickly (becoming more common starting in the 20th century), but it took a lot more trial and error for consumers and businesses alike to figure out the right way to protect wires and electricity users alike.

6. The first modern electrical outlet took decades to exist

One of the consistent themes in the story of the public adoption of electricity is that demand often outstripped supply, even down to basic components. Once consumers had access to electric lights, they wanted more: they wanted the beautiful, clean energy that lit up their homes turned to other appliances, and they wanted it immediately. The problem was that the initial infrastructure was only intended to support lighting fixtures; essentially, the only output option available for a long time was the socket for light bulbs. 

But this didn’t stop enthusiastic homeowners and manufacturers. For the first few decades of the new utility’s existence, electrical appliances other than lights plugged straight into the socket for the bulb–often through the good offices of an adapter. At first the adapter just allowed someone to plug another appliance in, right alongside the light bulb, so they wouldn’t have to choose between light and other functions. But over time, more complex adapters entered the market, allowing multiple appliances to be plugged directly into lighting fixtures. Eventually, the first separate, wall-mounted power outlets came about.

But even here, there were issues: grounding electrical outlets took a fairly long time to come about, and much like early efforts at insulating electrical wiring, the first plug-and-socket systems were metal-on-metal, which meant that sparks flew every time something was plugged in or unplugged. Rubber-wrapped plugs would arrive in the 1910s and grounded plugs and sockets came about in 1928, invented by Philip F. Labre.

5. Explosions and massive fires were common

Understandably, it took a long time for electricity to supplant gas power when it came to heat and light in homes; even once electric power plants came up in more rural areas, electrical appliances–such as stoves and heating systems and so on–were often expensive, and required even more work and renovation to bring in. So for a long time, homes used a hybrid of gas and electricity; of course, this is still the case for many people who use natural gas for water and home heating needs, and electricity for everything else. The problem in the early days was that gas supplies into homes were still rather poorly regulated. Leaky gas supply into the home, plus a spark from an appliance plug–or just from a short–could result in a fire or even an explosion, 

Even where gas and electricity weren’t necessarily creating a dangerous mix, electrical appliances including lights were still very poorly regulated and controlled in the early days. While mass-casualty events like the Iroquois Theatre fire in 1903 and the Dewey Hotel fire in 1913 made the news and highlighted the dangers of poorly-made electrical devices and the combination of leaky gas systems and electricity, they weren’t alone. Explosions and electrical fires were fairly common–and common causes of death. Gas leaks and electrical fires do still cause tragedy, even today; but the advent of regulations and the increase in knowledge of how to handle electricity, natural gas, and hybrid systems has greatly decreased the frequency.

4. The electrification trend led to a massive asbestos boom

Given what we now know of the dangers of exposure to asbestos, it can come as a surprise that anyone ever thought using it widely was a good idea. Even more surprising is the fact that it was only fairly recently that asbestos became an illegal material in many countries. While small amounts of asbestos saw use as far back as the ancient Greeks and Romans, electrification really brought about a golden age of asbestos–mining, material development, and production. 

Why? Asbestos does a few things very, very well–apart from causing cancer. It’s highly resistant to heat, water, chemicals, and, importantly: electricity. As more and more electrical appliances came into the home, the insulator of choice was often asbestos, thanks to its efficiency as well as its cheap cost. Appliances that contained asbestos included: stoves, ovens, toasters, dishwashers, washing machines, bottle warmers, curling irons, heaters, ironing boards, and hair dryers. In most cases the asbestos was unlikely to come out of the appliance unless it was punctured, severely damaged, or taken apart; but in some cases, the fibers could come out through the normal operation. Of course, the results of the asbestos business boom are now known to most: cancers, including mesothelioma, and other health problems, almost universally fatal. 

3. Some of the most popular electrical objects took longer to be invented

Some of the most commonly accepted and indispensable electronic devices and appliances of today were not a high priority when electricity first came to homes in the late 19th century. While most of us would consider the fridge to be an absolute necessity among our electrical appliances, the first electric refrigerator for domestic use wasn’t invented until 1913. Interestingly, it wasn’t a success. It would take another 5 years for refrigerators to become commercially viable, putting them long after a whole host of other devices that became commonplace consumer goods first. The first electric washing machine wasn’t developed until 1907, and took years longer to become a more popular consumer good.

Part of the issue was–understandably–expense. Only the relatively well-to-do could afford brand-new appliances early on; so early appliance development focused on the kinds of things the wealthy might want, rather than what might be most useful. Another issue though was that Victorian-era homemakers already had what they viewed as perfectly good solutions to the problems of washing clothes, sweeping floors, and common food and drink storage. In the case of refrigerators in particular, it’s also worth pointing out that early fridges were prone to leaking the gases they used–which could result in poisoning, chemical burns, or more explosions and fires. 

But as electricity became more accessible for the masses, inventors looking to make money off of the consumer market turned their attention to the problems that average homemakers and middle-class and working-class families might encounter–resulting in some of our most essential electric appliances.

2. The first successful electric cars were built in the 19th century

Given the expensive price tag for electric cars even today, it might come as a surprise to find out that the first successful electric cars were invented and built in the 19th century. Of course, these cars were far from what we’d currently expect in terms of performance, but electric cars were a possibility long before gas-powered cars became normalized in the US. The true “first” car laurels depend on what standard is being applied, but Gustave Trouvé created the first powered tricycle in 1881, after adapting a newly-invented battery and a Siemens motor that he had done some work to improve. In the UK, Thomas Parker built an electric car in 1884, after a great deal of trial and error. His early vehicle also bore some features that wouldn’t become common for another 100 years: all-wheel drive and hydraulic brakes on all four wheels, to name just a couple of his innovations. The first electric car built in the US came about thanks to William Morrison in 1890. 

So why didn’t electric cars take off? The introduction of Ford’s Model T car made gasoline-powered cars less expensive, and then the GM Cadillac Touring Edition achieved the industry-shaking goal of eliminating the time-consuming and physically demanding hand crank system. Once gasoline cars became affordable and as easy to drive as electric cars, electric cars were relegated to hobbyists and scientists who had the time to refine and develop the principles behind them. Limitations including battery capacity and power, along with the ability to achieve higher speeds, kept electric cars on the sideline until the later part of the 20th century. 

1. The electric chair was invented very early on

While household appliances weren’t electrified very quickly, one thing followed up on the invention of the light bulb with breathtaking speed: the electric chair. The first electric chair was invented by engineers working for Thomas Edison in the 1880s–but the idea of executing people via electricity had come into public consciousness thanks to Alfred Southwick in 1881. Interestingly, the invention was as much part of Edison’s long drive to push alternating current (AC) power out of the spotlight to make way for his own version of electrical power, direct current. 

The first execution by electric chair took place in 1890: William Kemmler, a German-American man who had killed his wife in a drunken rage. It was not nearly as peaceful or as humane as those who had promoted the idea of death by electrocution for capital crimes would have hoped, but the electric chair would go on to be adopted by multiple states, and still exists as an option in some parts of the US today, as well as in the Philippines. 

Although electricity has become so commonplace that many don’t even think about the impact it has on our lives until the power goes out, there was once a time when it was incredibly new and not very well understood. As electrical power rolled out across the US, UK, and other countries, history shows us that often it was taken up with more enthusiasm than caution, and that many of the seemingly common-sense rules and regulations and laws around electrical power that we have today were not so obvious to those who’d never worked with electricity before. Fortunately, people around the world learned quickly, and electricity has become an increasingly vital part of everyday life as opposed to a potentially deadly curiosity.

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