History of Electricity

Independence Day represents more than just a federal holiday. In fact, this July fourth marks the 240th anniversary of the legal separation of the Thirteen Colonies (United States) from Great Britain.

The Declaration of Independence, written by a committee of five along with Thomas Jefferson was drafted prior to the vote for separation was reviewed and edited by the Second Continental Congress in 1776. It states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This second sentence of the declaration has since become one of the most well known phrases and statements of all time.

Independence Day is celebrated in a multitude of ways, most of which require electricity to get the party started. So, if you’re attending or any type of patriotic event today like, a backyard BBQ, concerts, speeches or ceremonies, it might be fun to check out our energy timeline – just to see how far electricity has come since 1776.

1776 – Independence Day

In 1776, residents and businesses heavily relied on wood, coal, candles, and other natural material to heat, light and cool their homes. Even then, for people living in remote areas away from the city, they were forced to rely on material they could find or produce themselves.

Writing the Declaration of Independence, or any correspondence for example, had to be done by the light of day, candlelight or from the light generated by a fireplace.

1882 – Pearl Street Station

In 1882, the Pearl Street Station became the first central power plant in the United States. Located in Manhattan, NY, the coal-fired electricity station initially serviced 400 lamps and 82 customers. By 1884, the station served 10,164 lamps and 508 customers.

Thomas Edison’s company, the Edison Illuminating Company was responsible for constructing the Pearl Street Station, with custom built high-speed steam engines. In order to successfully run, the engines needed to generate 175 horsepower at 700 revolutions per minute. However, the original engines proved to be problematic and were eventually replaced.

The Pearl Street Station was also the world’s first cogeneration plant. This means that Edison was able to figure out a way to take the thermal byproduct generated by steam and transfer it to local factories, manufacturers and buildings within the area.

Unfortunately, the generation burnt down in 1890. However, one of its electric generators remained intact and currently resides in in Michigan at the Greenfield Village Museum.

1895 – Adams Power Plant Transformer House

Constructed in 1895, the Adams Power Plant Transformer House currently remains the only structure that once was part of the Edward Dean Adams Power Plant (also constructed in 1895). It was the first alternating current electric generation plant in the world.

Alternating current refers to the flow of electric charge, and the fact that it changes or reverses direction. It is different from direct current, where the electric charge flow only moves in one direction. Prior to the development of this structure, direct current was the primary method for electricity generation projects of similar scale and size.

Built by architectural firm McKim, Mead and White, the transformer house went up on the upper Niagara River. It was placed above twenty-one generating units. Water from the generators moved into a 7000 foot tunnel. This tunnel moved the water underneath the city to the lower river (close to where the Rainbow Bridge is today). It took workers more than three years to build, using over 16 million bricks.

1935 – Energy Regulation

Many inventions in the early 1900’s including, the refrigerator, washing machines and vacuum cleaners led Americans to require more electricity in their homes. Due to the industry’s rapid growth, U.S. congress passed The Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935 (PUHCA). This act provided mandatory regulations for utilities to follow in order to sell, deliver, supply, etc. electricity to customers.

1910 – Coal Production

By 1910, the United States became the largest producer of coal in the world to support the booming electricity industry. With 750,000 miners, the country produced 550 million tons of coal per year!

1936 – Hoover Dam

The Hoover Dam was built to control flooding, provide water for irrigation and utilize a natural resource to produce hydroelectric power for the area. Constructed between the boarder of Nevada and Arizona during the Great Depression, it was a massive undertaking that required thousands of workers. Despite these facts, it only took 5 years to build.

The distribution of electricity that is generated by the Hoover Dam (according to the Bureau of Reclamation) is broken down as follows:

  • Metropolitan Water District of Southern California: 28.53%
  • Nevada: 23.3706%
  • Arizona: 18.9527%
  • Los Angeles, CA: 15.4229%
  • Southern California Edison Co.: 5.5377%
  • Boulder City, NV: 1.7672%
  • Glendale, CA: 1.5874%
  • Pasadena, CA: 1.3629%
  • Anaheim, CA: 1.1487%
  • Riverside, CA: 0.8615%
  • Vernon, CA: 0.6185%
  • Burbank, CA: 0.5876%
  • Azusa, CA: 0.1104%
  • Colton, CA: 0.0884%
  • Banning, CA: 0.0442%

1957 – Shippingport Atomic Power Station

The Shippingport Atomic Power Station was the first commercial central electric-generation station to use nuclear energy in the United States. Built in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, it remained in service until October 1982. The plant was build in 32 months, cost a total of $72.5 million to build and could handle different types of cores. Despite this, the nuclear process remained the same as it does today. Water in a primary system is heated via nuclear fission. The result then flows into a heating exchange system that absorbs the heat. That heat turns water in a secondary system, which generates steam. The steam moves to the turbine generator to move the turbine and generate electricity.

The first power generated from this nuclear power plant fed into a grid located in the Pittsburgh area.

1973 – Oil Crisis

The oil crisis, which spanned from 1973 – 1974, occurred when the price of oil reached all time highs because of the embargo put into effect by the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries. This event demonstrated how reliant or dependent the United States and other countries around the world were on oil. The impact led to the exploration of alternative energy sources and renewable energy found in solar, wind and hydroelectricity.

1992 – Energy Deregulation

While energy regulation helped to force utilities to abide by many regulations, many still maintained too much control over the price of electricity. In order to stop these monopolies, the Energy Policy Act, put into effect in 1992 opened up the market to competition.

What this meant for many states was that when it came to the supply of electricity, consumers could turn to retail energy suppliers. Retail energy suppliers are companies that provide competitive rates, pricing, and plans to consumers for the supply of electricity. While consumers have the ability to choose who supplies their energy, this new act caused utilities to reevaluate their business methods.

While many states are energy deregulated including, New Jersey, Illinois, Ohio, Texas and more, there are still some states that are not.

2016 – Clean & Renewable Energy

The Clean Air Act was actually initially passed around 1967, but additions were made in 1990. The purpose of the act is to protect the American public from airborne toxins. Burning so much coal for so long released a lot of toxins into the air, which was and is very harmful for the environment and for the health of people all over the world.

Since then, the United States government has worked hard to improve the ways in which electricity is generated to decrease the impact and harm to the environment. Many states have clean energy initiatives that focus on upgrading buildings, homes and more with technologies that rely more on renewable energies. There are many programs and plans out there that encourage the use of solar, wind, hydroelectricity, and other more modern forms of power to generate electricity.