Electric Power and Light Industry

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ELECTRIC POWER AND LIGHT INDUSTRY. The social and economic impact of the electric power and light industry, which began its rapid development during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, has been so great that some refer to the twentieth century as the "Age of Electricity." Not only have such giant companies as General Electric and Westing house been associated with the rise of this industry—which has dramatically altered manufacturing methods, transportation, and the domestic environment—but thousands of local, municipal, and regional utility and manufacturing companies have also engaged in generating and distributing electricity, as well as in manufacturing, selling, and servicing electrical apparatus. The success of the electrical industry in supplanting older methods of providing illumination and mechanical power—such as the gaslight and the steam engine—was the result of the ease and economy with which companies could generate and transmit over long distances large quantities of electrical energy and then convert it into heat, light, or motion.

Although the electric power and light industry did not reach a level of commercial importance until near the end of the nineteenth century, there were notable related scientific and technological developments prior to 1875. One of the earliest electric motors developed in America was the "electrical jack," primarily a philosophical toy, described by Benjamin Franklin in 1749. Franklin and other colonial natural philosophers also commonly used tribo-electric or frictional electrostatic generators. Following the announcement of the electrochemical battery by Count Alessandro Volta in 1800 and Hans Christian Oersted and André Marie Ampère's discovery in 1820 of the mechanical force that current-carrying conductors would exert on permanent magnets or other conductors, many investigators perceived that electricity might compete with the steam engine as a source of power in manufacturing and transportation. In 1831 the American Joseph Henry devised a small motor that produced a rocking motion and developed powerful electromagnets capable of lifting up to 3,600 pounds. Thomas Davenport, a Vermont blacksmith, built several electric direct-current rotary motors during the 1830s and used them to drive woodworking tools, a printing press, and a small "electric train." Charles G. Page of Washington, D.C., developed motors used to propel an experimental locomotive at speeds up to twenty miles per hour in 1851. Nevertheless, by the 1850s most observers recognized that the electric motor required a more efficient and inexpensive source of electrical energy than the battery before it could threaten the dominance of the steam engine.

An alternative to the voltaic battery as a source of electrical current had been available in principle since Michael Faraday's discovery of electromagnetic induction in 1831. This discovery led to the development of magnetogenerators, which converted mechanical motion into electricity. Joseph Saxton of Washington, D.C., produced an early magnetogenerator that was used in medical experiments and in electroplating during the 1840s. Magnetogenerators began to be used for arclights in lighthouses after about 1850. Several major changes in the design of the magnetogenerator culminated in the invention of the more efficient self-excited generator, or dynamo, during the 1860s. The first commercially successful dynamo was that of the Belgian Zénobe T. Gramme. Used both as a generator and as a motor, the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 prominently featured a Gramme dynamo built by William A. Anthony, a Cornell University professor, probably the first dynamo built in America. In the same year Thomas A. Edison established his famous laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey, which became the center for the creation of his incandescent light and power system.

The arc-lighting industry became the first sector of the electric light and power industry to achieve a substantial commercial success, largely replacing the gaslight industry for street lighting in urban areas. Charles F. Brush of Cleveland, Ohio, became the pioneer innovator in arc lighting in America. His first commercial installation was in Philadelphia in 1878, and several other cities, including San Francisco, soon adopted the Brush system. Numerous competitors soon entered the field, including Elihu Thomson's and E. J. Houston's Thomson-Houston Electric Company and Elmer A. Sperry's Sperry Electric Light, Motor and Car Brake Company, both founded in 1883. Thomson pioneered several improvements in arc lighting, including an automatic current regulator and a lightning arrester, and Sperry devised a current regulator and invented an automatic regulator of electrode spacing in the arclight. Sperry was also responsible for a spectacular installation of arc lights (1886) located at the top of a 300-foot tower on the Board of Trade Building in Chicago that could be seen from sixty miles away. The Thomson-Houston Company came to dominate the industry by 1890, with the number of arclights in use growing to about 300,000 in 1895, by which time incandescent gas and electric lights both provided strong competition.

Edison and his associates at Menlo Park were largely responsible for the introduction of a successful incandescent lighting system. Edison already enjoyed a reputation as an inventor of telegraph instruments when he turned his attention to the problem of indoor electric lighting in 1878. The Edison Light Company attracted substantial financial support from J. P. Morgan and other investment bankers, who spent a half-million dollars before the Edison system achieved commercial success. After a study of the gaslight industry, Edison decided that a high-resistance lamp was necessary for the economical subdivision of electricity generated by a central station. A systematic search for a suitable lamp resulted in the carbon-filament high-vacuum lamp by late 1879. The Menlo Park team also developed a series of dynamos of unprecedented efficiency and power capacity, such as the "Jumbo Dynamo," which provided power for 1,200 lamps. The first public demonstration of the new system was held at Menlo Park on 31 December 1879, and the first commercial central station, located on Pearl Street in New York City, began operation in 1882. Three separate manufacturing companies produced lamps, dynamos, and transmission cables, but were combined in 1889 to form the Edison General Electric Company. The subsequent merger of this company with the Thomson-Houston Company in 1892 resulted in the General Electric Company. By the early 1880s electrical journals, regional and national societies devoted to electrical technology, national and international exhibitions of electrical apparatuses, and new academic programs in electrical science and engineering proliferated in recognition of the new industry's economic potential.

George Westing house pioneered the introduction of a competing incandescent lighting system using alternating current, which proved to have decisive advantages over the Edison direct-current system. A key element of the new system was the transformer, which increased a generator's voltage to any desired amount for transmission to remote points, where another transformer then reduced the voltage to a level suitable for lamps. This feature overcame the major limitation of the direct-current distribution system, which could provide energy economically only at distances of a mile or less from the generator. Westing house, who had considerable experience in manufacturing railway-signaling devices and in natural-gas distribution, organized the Westing house Electric Company in 1886 to begin the manufacture of transformers, alternators, and other alternating-current apparatus. Westing house opened the first commercial installation in Buffalo, New York, late in 1886. Shortly thereafter the Thomson-Houston Company entered the field and was Westing house's only serious competitor in America until the formation of General Electric. The advent of the Westing house alternating-current system precipitated the "battle of the systems," during which spokesmen of the Edison Company argued that alternating current was much more dangerous than direct current and even used Westing house generators to electrocute a convicted murderer in 1890. But the economic advantages of alternating current soon settled the matter. By 1892 more than five hundred alternating-current central stations operated in the United States alone, boosting the number of incandescent lamps in use to 18 million by 1902.

During the late 1880s, urban streetcar systems, which had previously depended on horses or cables, began to electrify their operations. Frank J. Sprague, a former Edison employee, organized the Sprague Electric Railway and Motor Company in 1884. Sprague had developed an efficient fifteen-horsepower direct-current motor by 1885 and obtained a contract to build a forty-car system in Richmond, Virginia, in 1887. The Richmond installation, which began operation the following year, became the prototype for the industry, which spread to all major American cities before the end of the century. The Westing house Company began to manufacture railway motors in 1890, followed by General Electric in 1892. These two companies soon dominated the field: Westing house had produced about twenty thousand railway motors by 1898, and General Electric, about thirty thousand. Sprague continued to improve his system and won the contract for the electrification of the South Side Elevated Railway in Chicago in 1897. His company was purchased by General Electric in 1902.

The next major innovation in electric motors and generators was the introduction of alternating-current machines during the 1890s. The Westing house Company acquired the strategic alternating-current motor patents of the Serbian immigrant Nikola Tesla and became the leading American firm in exploiting the new technology. In particular, the company developed practical alternating-current motors for use in interurban railroads and in industry. In 1891 the company installed a single-phase system to supply a hundred-horsepower motor near Telluride, Colorado, and built a large display at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In October of the same year, Westing house received the contract to construct the generating equipment for the famous Niagara Falls Power project. The project successfully generated an enormous amount of power and transmitted it up to twenty miles from the site, clearly establishing the superiority of alternating current for hydroelectric power and opening the prospect that previously inaccessible sites might be exploited. The availability of cheap electric power at Niagara stimulated the rapid growth of a number of energy-intensive electrochemical industries in the vicinity. The growth of the alternating-current power and lighting industry also stimulated the work of Charles P. Steinmetz, who joined the General Electric Company as an electrical engineer in 1893 and who presented a classic paper on the use of complex algebra in alternating-current analysis at the International Electrical Congress in Chicago the same year. He also formulated a law of magnetic hysteresis that became a basis for the rational design of transformers and alternators.

Sidney B. Paine of General Electric was responsible for the first major use of alternating-current motors in industry. He persuaded the owners of a new textile factory in Columbia, South Carolina, to abandon the traditional system of belting and shafting powered by giant steam engines in favor of textile machines using polyphase induction motors. In this instance the constant speed of the motors was a distinct advantage, and the new system soon spread throughout the industry. Direct-current motors remained in wide use in applications requiring variable speed, such as in steel mills and in machine tooling. By 1909 almost 250,000 industrial motors were being manufactured per year, more than half of the alternating-current type. Nearly every industry in the country had installed electric motors by the beginning of World War I.

One of the most significant events in the history of the electric light and power industry was the introduction of high-speed turboelectric generators in central power stations during the first decade of the twentieth century. By 1900 the unit capacity of alternators driven by the reciprocating steam engine had reached a practical limit of around five thousand kilowatts with giant thirty-foot rotors weighing up to two hundred tons and driven at speeds of around seventy-five revolutions per minute. The new turbogenerators were much more compact for the same capacity and could be built for much greater output power. However, the higher speeds of the turbogenerators (up to two thousand revolutions per minute) necessitated the use of stronger materials, such as nickel-steel alloys, that could withstand the increased mechanical stresses. New rotor designs were also necessary to reduce air resistance and improve ventilation. Both Westing house and General Electric decided to manufacture their own turbines based on the patents of C. A. Parsons and G. G. Curtis, respectively. General Electric built the first large commercial installation, a five-thousand-kilowatt unit, for the Commonwealth Edison Company of Chicago in 1903. In 1909 the company replaced it with a twelve-thousand-kilowatt turbogenerator. Of the 1.8 million kilowatts of turbogenerator capacity installed by 1908, 56 percent was manufactured by General Electric, 33 percent by Westing house, and 11 percent by the newcomer Allis-Chalmers Company of Milwaukee.

Turboelectric generators made possible significant economies of scale, making it more economical for most consumers to purchase electric power from central generating stations than to install their own isolated generating plants. The history of the turbogenerator since 1910 has been one of steady increase in the maximum size of units and a concomitant reduction in the consumption of fuel per unit of energy generated.

Another "battle of the systems" broke out in the first two decades of the twentieth century—this time between steam and electric locomotives. In this case the older steam technology won out. Most of the electrified inter-urban transportation operated in areas having high population density or requiring tunnels, where the smoke from steam locomotives presented problems. The mileage of "electrified track" jumped from 250 in 1905 to about 3,000 in 1914. After a fairly rapid growth in track mileage during the period 1904–1908, alternating-current rail systems plateaued until the electrification of the New York–Washington, D.C., line of the Pennsylvania Railroad during the 1930s. In contrast, the steam railroad mileage increased steadily at the rate of about six thousand miles per year from 1900 to the beginning of World War I, reaching a total of about 260,000 miles in 1912. The steam locomotive was supplanted during the period 1930–1960 by the diesel-electric locomotive, in which the power for the electric drive motors was locally generated by diesel-powered electric generators. Developments in power electronics since 1950 have created a renewed interest in electric locomotives powered from remote central stations.

Another major trend in the electric power industry during the twentieth century has been toward higher transmission voltages, which increase the distances over which electrical energy can be transmitted economically. The introduction of the suspension insulator in 1906 soon enabled transmission voltages of the order of 100 kilovolts to become common. The adoption of 345 kilovolts as a standard transmission line voltage in the 1950s made feasible transmission distances of more than three hundred miles. Coincident with the development of techniques that have made possible the production of large quantities of electrical energy at a single location and its efficient transmission over high-voltage lines was a rising concern for the conservation of nonrenewable resources, such as coal. This concern, which crested just prior to World War I, led to the formulation of a policy for the rational development of the nation's hydroelectric power resources. This policy was articulated by conservationists—notably Gifford Pinchot and W. J. McGee—and supported by leading engineers. Numerous privately and publicly owned hydroelectric power projects, especially in the South and West, implemented their program, including the well-known impoundments built by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) beginning during the 1930s.

The growth of hydroelectric generating stations and the realization by Samuel Insull and others in the electric utility industry that even further economies could be achieved through the creation of power "pools" or "superpower systems" led to a consolidation movement beginning around 1910. Insull, who was already president of the Commonwealth Electric Company of Chicago, organized the Middle West Utilities Company as a combination of several smaller plants in 1912. After World War I, Insull established a utilities empire financed by the sale of holding-company stock to the public. By 1930 the Insull-managed power companies had become a giant in the industry with assets of more than $2 billion while producing approximately 10 percent of the nation's electric power. When the stock market crash ruined Insull financially and led to his indictment for mail fraud and embezzlement, it discredited the electric light and power industry and helped provide the rationale for the TVA experiment.

The impact of industrial research laboratories on the power and light industry was especially evident just prior to World War I, when scientists such as W. R. Whitney, W. D. Coolidge, and Irving Langmuir of the General Electric Research Laboratory, which had been organized in 1900, played a leading role. This group was responsible for the development of the famous Mazda series of gas-filled tungsten-filament lamps, which quickly supplanted the carbon-filament vacuum lamps and enabled the production of lamps in a range of sizes with unprecedented efficiency. Lamp production increased enormously following these innovations, and by 1925 more than 14 million residential homes had been wired for electricity. Other domestic uses of electricity developed during the 1920s, including electric stoves, refrigerators, irons, and washing machines. The establishment of the Rural Electrification Administration in the 1930s accelerated the spread of power lines into areas of low population density: the U.S. consumption of electric energy reached 65 billion kilowatt-hours in 1924, approximately equal to that of the rest of the world combined, and the output of the electric power industry doubled each decade through most of the twentieth century. The cost of electrical energy provided for residential purposes declined steadily from an average of 16.2 cents per kilowatt-hour in 1902 to 2.3 cents in 1964.

American energy consumption continued to expand, and prices remained low until 1973, when an oil embargo set off a worldwide energy crisis that sent the cost of energy soaring. The electric utility industry responded by steadily reducing the percentage of oil-fired generators from 16 or 17 percent in the 1960s and early 1970s to only 2 percent in 1997. Retail prices for electricity remained high through the early 1980s, when they began a steady decline (in real dollars) through the next two decades. Gas-fired, coal-fired, and nuclear generators have accounted for the bulk of the difference between declining oil-generated electricity and growing energy consumption.

Nuclear generators had received their start in 1954, when the federal government launched a development program that resulted in an installation located in Shippingport, Pennsylvania, which began generating electric power in 1957. By the beginning of the 1980s, the United States had more than a hundred nuclear power plants in operation—almost exactly the same number as in 1999, and far less than the thousand reactors that some early projections suggested would be needed by the end of the century. The turning point for nuclear energy production came in 1979, when a serious accident at Three Mile Island caused public support for nuclear energy to plummet from 70 percent before the accident to only 43 percent in 1999. Although no new orders for commercial nuclear reactors have been made since the incident at Three Mile Island, existing nuclear generators have greatly improved their output, raising the national capacity factor from under 65 percent through the 1970s and 1980s to 76 percent in 1996.

One of the more significant new chapters in the electric power and light industry opened on 31 March 1998, when California deregulated its electric industry. The experiment, hailed by some as a boon to consumers, sent power prices skyrocketing in 2000, when shortages began to mount, prompting the state to reregulate the industry in 2001. Then, in 2002, following the collapse and bankruptcy of the energy giant Enron, the public was stunned by revelations that its energy traders had used various strategems to create artificial energy shortages to push prices up in California.


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James E.Brittain/c. w.

See alsoDeregulation ; Electricity and Electronics ; Electrification, Household ; Energy Industry ; Hydroelectric Power ; Industrial Research ; Lamp, Incandescent ; Lighting ; Nuclear Power ; Railways, Urban, and Rapid Transit ; Steam Power and Engines ; Tennessee Valley Authority ; andvol. 9:Power .

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