Who gets credit for America’s adoption of electricity?

Another post from Age of Edison:

Defending these new regulations [on electric light], the progressive reformers pointed to Europe’s example. Governments there had played a more active role in controlling the development of the electric industry. National laws encouraged municipal ownership of utilities and set standards for all electrical work, drawn up by leading scientists and engineers. And Europeans had done a better job of preventing the new technology from scarring their fine buildings and urban boulevards, placing most wires in the urban core underground early on…

But American electric companies drew a very different lesson from Europe’s example. As they claimed time and again, the United States enjoyed far more electric light than any other place in the world, a bounty that electricians traced not only to their own inventiveness and entrepreneurial spirit but also to the lack of government interference.

Both arguments sound familiar.

So who really deserves the credit for America’s rapid embrace of the electric light?

By the turn of the twentieth century, electricity was coming of age, no longer a curiosity but a mass commodity, delivered by a sophisticated and heavily capitalized industry that saw nothing but exponential growth ahead. Some old-timers who gathered at the National Electric Light Association conventions looked back nostalgically on the early years when any man with a bit of enterprise, practical skill, and a fascination with electricity could go into the light business for himself. But most acknowledged that the changes had been necessary, the only way for industry to grow, providing more, safer, and less expensive light while paying healthy dividends for its inventors.

Though the rash of fires and electrocutions had threatened the industry’s growth in the late 1880s, it emerged from these challenges stronger than ever. The owners and operators of the utility companies deserved a share of the credit for turning electric light from an invention into a paying business, but the expanding electrical grid was also created by other institutions and conflicting forces, an attempt by many Americans to mediate the interests of rival inventors and manufacturers, the salesmen of light and their customers, the competing values of free enterprise and progressives’ all to use government to protect the public from the twin dangers of market chaos and corporate monopoly.

The more mature and stable electrical system that emerged by the early twentieth century had been produced by other forces as well–the scientists and journalists who helped to develop and spread a common language of electricity; research institutions and technical schools that turned a growing number of enthusiastic students into licensed electricians and engineers; legislatures that created regulatory bodies and electrical codes; the experts who protected the public interest through their work as inspectors, utilities commissioners, and civic-minded economists; unions that tried to protect their members from unsafe work practices; and the insurance companies that guarded the public’s interest and their own bottom line by imposing safety standards on electrical products and work. All played their part in turning Edison’s famed invention into the far more complex and powerful creation, the modern electrical grid.

Pages 210-212. My previous posts on the book are here and here.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s