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5 Surprising Facts About Early Electricity Production

Learn about little-known developments in the early generation of electricity.

 

People have known electricity exists for thousands of years–the ancient Greeks and Egyptians were aware of it. However, people have only been generating electricity for about 250 years. Aside from Franklin’s kite experiment and Edison’s light bulb, the early years of electricity production were filled with many other exciting developments, including plenty of odd and unexpected twists and turns.

 

  1. To power your business, you needed your own small power plant.

In the early days of electricity production, if you had a business and wanted electricity, you hired Edison’s people to set up a mini power plant on site, explains Gretchen Bakke on NPR. You basically had your own small grid powering your property. Thus, cities grew covered with convoluted webs of overlapping wires.

Edison would also launch one of the world’s first centralized power plants as well, the Pearl Street Station, in 1882 since individualized energy generation wasn’t exactly efficient.

Sketch of the Pearl Street Station.

 

2. Hawaii was an early adopter of electricity.

King Kalakaua of Hawaii brought electric lighting to Honolulu’s streets in 1888, after electricity had been demonstrated at both the royal palace and a sugar mill on Maui. “By 1890, almost 800 Honolulu residences were enjoying the luxury of electricity, at a time when most people in Europe and the United States still did without,” says Allison Marsh on IEEE Spectrum. The king believed electricity would encourage investment and migration to Hawaii, she explains.

 

3. The first electric streetlights were mounted on 300-foot-tall towers.

Instead of the gentle glow of the modern streetlight, the earliest electric streetlights were more like towering floodlights. Picture the lighting in a huge stadium to imagine what that would’ve looked like, says Low Tech Magazine. Called the arc light, they were created by connecting a battery with two charcoal rods, which allows a current to travel between the rods, creating an extremely bright light.

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The emergence of the electric generator, or dynamo, in the late 1870s made it possible to use the arc light for street lighting, say the authors. Paris installed arc lights in 1877, and the U.S. followed in 1879, they explain–and in 1881, San Jose installed the first arc light tower, which would become a popular practice in the U.S.

 

4. Nuclear power would be “too cheap to meter,” experts believed.

In the aftermath of World War II, people felt extremely optimistic about the potential positive uses of nuclear power. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, experts believed nuclear power production was poised to skyrocket so greatly that it would quickly become incredibly cheap.

“Over 200 nuclear power plants were planned across the country, and homes were built with all-electric heating systems to take advantage of this power that would be ‘too cheap to meter,” states the organization–an idea that didn’t quite come to fruition.

 

5. The first wind turbine that could produce electricity was created in 1888.

Ohio inventor Charles Brush–who also created the open core dynamo, a stepping stone toward the contemporary generator–built an electricity-generating wind turbine in his backyard. The 60-foot windmill powered batteries in his basement says Power Mag. Though these windmills didn’t gain widespread popularity, they would prove useful for powering irrigation pumps on farms in the U.S. Midwest, the authors add.

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This list by no means provides an exhaustive account of electricity’s most interesting milestones and moments. These are just a few of the most fascinating stepping stones in a still-evolving industry!

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