Life changed when the Industrial Revolution began. New manufacturing techniques took production out of homes and into factories. Instead of taking a full day to spin and weave one rug, factory workers produced 1,000 in a single day. Machines like Watt’s steam engine and Eli Whitney’s cotton gin made work faster and life more convenient.
The Light Bulb
Thomas Edison was born during this manufacturing revolution and continued to make contributions to the modern industrialized world throughout his life. He held 1,093 US patents, but his best known is the incandescent light. Edison was not the first to invent the light bulb; indeed, many had experimented with it before him. However, the previous versions were extremely expensive to produce, needed a high electric current, and expired quickly.
Edison demonstrated his commercially viable light bulb in 1879 and patented an electricity distribution system the following year. It was then, in 1880, that the power industry was born in America.
The Columbian Exposition
The World’s Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair, celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World. More than that, however, it celebrated American innovation. Scientific discoveries took center stage for all to see.
Here, the “War of the Currents” raged over direct current (DC) versus alternating current (AC). Nikola Tesla introduced the two-phase motor, and the Westinghouse Company presented systems that transmitted electricity over long distances. Even things like spray paint, the Ferris Wheel, and the automatic dishwasher made their debut at the Exposition.
However, Edison’s achievement was the main event, as it had fascinated the country and the scientific community in the years since its discovery. Strangely, Edison’s light bulbs did not provide lighting for most of the fair.
That honor went instead to Reginald Fessenden’s double-stopper light bulb, one of the fair’s most important exhibits. This type of light bulb lit the fair by using an iron-nickel alloy (a type of stainless steel) as the lead-in wire. Edison’s original light used platinum for this wire, and this new alloy reduced the bulb’s cost and increased its longevity.
These developments (and the competition they stirred) only spurred on more innovators.
Samuel Insull was Edison’s secretary when he first arrived in Chicago but quickly showed his business acumen by consolidating the city’s electric companies.
By 1907, Insull had unified 20 Chicago utility companies under the “Commonwealth Edison” corporate umbrella. The firm sold inexpensive energy and quickly became the most successful utility company in the area. It was so successful, however, that it became a virtual monopoly, and many called for regulations. Many of these utility regulations continue today, including those imposed during President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal safeguards.
Edison and Insull’s focus on amassing a customer base continued to decrease costs and distribute electricity throughout the country. Once electricity traveled, humans began to travel as well, and suburbs grew around major cities.
Modern power lines that transport our nation’s electricity are so common that we hardly notice them while driving down the street now, but these power lines were a major innovation in the early 1900s. Once constructed, the lines allowed people outside cities to access electricity, but they were inefficient at first.
According to the US Energy Information Administration, over 4,000 utility companies operated independently during that time. As electricity use doubled every 10 years, transmission systems had to combine in order to meet the demand.
Those 4,000 companies evolved into the three systems we have today: the Eastern Interconnected System (for states east of the Rocky Mountains), the Western Interconnected System (for states west of the Rocky Mountains), and the Texas Interconnected System.
Steel and the Power Industry
As we saw with Fessenden’s improved light bulb from the Columbian Exposition, nickel alloys and other stainless steels played a vital role in American power history.
At first, stainless steel was used only as kitchenware, but people soon discovered how useful it really is. Cars made with steel are more efficient and decrease environmental impact; chemical, processing, and oil industries depend on its corrosion resistance. From skyscrapers to artificial hips, steel is all around us.
Manufacturing and power plants rely on steel. Nuclear facilities, for example, are some of the most important. In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave a speech to the UN General Assembly in which he addresses WWII’s nuclear bombings. Instead of discussing nuclear energy’s destructive power, however, he pushed for “Atoms for Peace,” which would use the technology behind nuclear weapons to benefit the world.
The Atoms for Peace program built some of the first nuclear reactors, and there are over 250 facilities in the United States today. Along with concrete and lead, engineers and architects count on steel to build these structures and contain the material inside them.
Because of its long-term value, stainless steel is a constant fixture in American power, and steel is helping the industry progress every day.
Fessenden’s light bulb was just the beginning.