Five Inventions that Made The Modern American Utility
- Feb 9, 2021 4:14 pm GMT
Energy Central Editor Note: As mentioned below, February 11th is National Inventors Day. The utility industry is only as advanced and innovative as it is because of the hardworking, dedicated, and creative inventors-- as this article highlights some of the most important and impactful inventions in the history of the utility industry, we encourage you to think about the inventions and their inventors that have done the most to influence your job, your role in the utility industry, and your outlook for the future of the sector. Share your own inventors and inventions of choice in the comments below!
Inventions are the lifeblood of modern economy. Each industry, whether it is energy or semiconductors, began with an invention that, by itself, seemed unimportant and disconnected from regular existence at that time. But a series of associated business and technological developments transformed the same invention into an established industry.
The utility industry has followed a similar trajectory. Various parts of the industry were developed independently in different parts of the world. They came together to form a cohesive whole at the Pearl Street power station in Lower Manhattan, arguably a defining moment for the history of utilities in America.
On National Inventors Day, here is a brief look back at some of the most important inventions in the utility industry’s history. The scope of these inventions spans business and technology practices because new use cases and sales practices are as important as technology to extend the power industry’s reach into society.
Direct Current Motors
The development of battery technology has brought direct current sources back into the spotlight. In popular imagination, direct current is most closely associated with Thomas Edison, who was involved in a protracted battle with Nikola Tesla to make it the preferred system for generating and transmitting electricity. But it has history that is disconnected from Edison.
The route to developing direct current motors was hardly direct. It began with the discovery of electromagnetic induction by British inventor Michael Faraday. Thereafter, French inventor Hippolyte Pixii developed a rudimentary dynamo to convert the mechanical motion of a magnet into electrical energy in 1832. Italian Antonio Pacinotti refined the dynamo’s original design to invent a D.C. dynamo with a commutator that ensured electric current always flowed in the same direction. Belgian inventor Zenobe Gramme refined the design to invent the Gramme dynamo, which provided a continuous supply of electric current instead of the short bursts prevalent at that time. Gramme began manufacturing his dynamo in 1871 and demonstrated it at a Vienna exhibition, highlighting direct current’s potential as an electric motor. Edison purchased the rights to This series of developments provided the impetus for its use in 1879 at the Pearl Street station power plant.
Alternating Current Motors
While the existence of alternating current had already been known for some time, it was a series of developments that led to it becoming a viable technology for the grid. William Stanley Jr., an American inventor, developed the first AC transformer during the Great Barrington wars of electrification in the United States. Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla developed the A.C. induction motor. Both these inventions helped prove that alternating current could generate economies of scale for large-scale electrification. Up until the time that Tesla came up with the idea for AC motors, direct current was the preferred method for generating electricity. But it required installation of large dynamos at a business or residence. It was also expensive and not cost-effective to transmit electricity. The induction motor enabled transmission of power at high voltages over distances while step-up and step-down transformers enabled helped simplify the task of making the current suitable for delivery. The invention of induction meters by Oliver B. Shallenberger also helped develop a viable business model for utilities by making it possible to measure current supplied to customers.
The transformer is essential to grid operations because it enables switching between voltages i.e., transportation across great distances at high voltages and switching voltage down for delivery to businesses and residences. The transformer’s roots also lie in Faraday’s electromagnetic coil induction theory. Reverend Nicholas Callan, an Irish priest and scientist, is credited with inventing the induction coil transformer in 1836, making it possible to convert between voltages. France’s Lucien Gaulard and Englishman John Gibbs collaborated to make the world’s first power transformer for AC currents.
Hungarian physicists Otto Blathy, Miksa Déri, Karol Zipernowski, also known as Z.B.D, improved upon their designs and invented the modern transformer in 1886. They also developed a power plant using AC generators and Blathy invented the first alternating current power meter. American inventor and entrepreneur George Westinghouse had purchased the rights to Gaulard and Gibbs’ designs and he assigned his best engineers to improve it. American inventor William Stanley Jr. was responsible for developing the first AC transformer in the United States. Originally a Pittsburgh inhabitant, he moved to Great Barrington in Massachusetts to help electrify town.
Thomas Edison invented and patented the incandescent electric lamp in 1879. Before Edison’s light bulb, arc lights were popular as street lights or for large outdoor spaces. They were not suitable for home use because they were too bright and glaring. The electric bulb paved the way for widespread use of electricity inside homes and businesses and can be considered, arguably, the first viable use case for electricity. But moving electric bulbs into home required a central generating station and, thus, the Pearl Street station was conceptualized.
Electric bulbs were used to light the streets in New York City in 1882 and kickstarted the electric equipment and lighting manufacture industry. The industry had zero revenue in 1875 but it was doing business worth $100 million by 1900. In turn, electric companies proliferated to service this growing market. There were four government-owned and operated electric companies in 1882. In 1890, there were 100. By 1900, there were 100 electric companies. The rapidly-multiplying electric companies powered the United States to the excesses of the Roaring ‘20s. The onset of Depression led to a consolidation among electric companies and more regulation to turn them into utilities.
We take the massive operations of electric utilities for granted nowadays, presuming that they always operated at this scale. But there was a time when electric utilities did not have a broad base of customers or operations. In fact, Thomas Edison’s first commercial installation in 1881 was at a printing firm served by a dynamo located in its business. But his ingenuity lay in establishing a system of conductors that could service a growing base of customers from centralized power station.
Samuel Insull, a British-American businessman and Edison’s collaborator, took the idea with him to Chicago where he built the Harrison Street Station, then the world’s biggest power station. Insull had taken out a personal loan of $250,000 to build the station. To recoup his investment, he needed as many customers as possible and, so, he began offering power to everyone, including residences and small businesses, depending on the time of the day and their use patterns (a precursor to the modern time-of-use rates). At one point of time, Insull’s utilities boasted four million customers in 32 states and had a valuation of almost $3 billion.
The Great Depression made the company’s bonds worthless, however, and Insull became bankrupt. Eventually he found his way back to Europe and died of a heart attack in a Paris subway. But his business strategy of building large power plants and distribution networks helped lay the groundwork for expansion of electricity markets throughout America.