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Five Inventions that Made The Modern American Utility

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Rakesh  Sharma's picture
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I am a New York-based freelance journalist interested in energy markets. I write about energy policy, trading markets, and energy management topics. You can see more of my writing...

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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.

Transformers

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.

Electric Bulb

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.  

Power Stations

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.

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Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Feb 12, 2021

Thank you Rakesh, the inventions are key and I'm glad you told about Tesla. I feel his AC power and the hydro power generation were and still are the greatest inventions. His AC motor design is still the heart of our entire system. I work with Electric Vehicles and the AC controllers and motor are light years ahead of DC systems. The light bulb is also embarrassing at only 10% efficient with 90% or more of the energy producing HEAT.  The LED  is over 90% efficient with almost no heat produced. I'm so glad I don't live in an Edison DC world but it did get us started.  

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Feb 12, 2021

The light bulb is also embarrassing at only 10% efficient with 90% or more of the energy producing HEAT.  The LED  is over 90% efficient with almost no heat produced.

Amazing we had to wait so long for a better way, eh? Think about the added considerations that added to controlling temperature in a space as well!

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Feb 12, 2021

Another great celebration of Edison's birthday can be found on this other Energy Central post-- check it out: https://energycentral.com/c/um/edison%E2%80%99s-birthday-busy-time-his-follow-inventors

Audra Drazga's picture
Audra Drazga on Feb 18, 2021

For fun - if you have time there is a movie that came out around 2017 called "The Current War" - it is about George Westinghouse, Telsa, and Edison and the war between the electric power delivery system.  

Plot as described by Wikipeda

"It is 1880 and Thomas Edison has unveiled his electric lightbulb. He plans to distribute power to American neighborhoods using Direct Current (DC) which is cheaper and cleaner than gaslight but is limited in range and needs expensive wiring infrastructure. George Westinghouse, a successful business man and inventor himself, wishes to learn more, and invites Edison to dinner. After being snubbed by Edison, Westinghouse sets out to prove alternating current (AC) is the better technology as it can work over greater distances and at significantly lower cost. Edison and Westinghouse compete to get cities across the United States to use their system. Westinghouse does an AC demonstration at Great Barrington in March 1886.

Brilliant inventor Nikola Tesla arrives in the United States and begins working with Edison, but is disappointed by Edison's unwillingness to reconsider his ideas and to fulfill what Tesla thought was a financial promise which Edison passes off as just a joke. Tesla then leaves Edison's team. Edison fiercely guards his patents and sues Westinghouse.

Edison suggests that AC is dangerous and engages in a publicity war, while Westinghouse stands behind the technical merits of AC. As Edison struggles to find ways to make DC more affordable, Westinghouse attempts to get the high-voltage AC system to work with motors. Edison's wife dies, and Westinghouse is also struck with personal tragedy when his friend Franklin Pope dies in an electrical accident. Both face significant financial risk. To generate funds Edison commercially sells his speaking machine "The Phonograph". To damage the reputation of AC, Edison shows that it easily electrocutes animals, and secretly works to help the creators of execution by electric chair, despite his previous objections to manufacturing weapons or other machines of death. The first person to die by electrocution is William Kemmler, and newspapers label the event as "Far Worse Than Hanging". Westinghouse discovers Edison's involvement and reveals it to the press.

After an unsuccessful attempt to strike out on his own, Tesla is approached by Westinghouse to work together, and build a practical AC motor. Edison is increasingly marginalized and J. P. Morgan merges Edison Electric into General Electric. The competing systems come to a head as they both put forward proposals to illuminate the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Samuel Insull presents the bid on behalf of Edison, and Westinghouse presents his competing bid. The abundantly lit fair is revealed. Westinghouse was successful. At the fair Westinghouse and Edison meet briefly. Edison discusses what it was like to achieve a great invention, and suggests that his next invention (motion pictures) could be so incredible that people might forget his name was ever associated with electricity."

John Gage's picture
John Gage on Feb 21, 2021

The most important invention for utilities this century is the creation of an economic policy that corrects the market’s failure to account for the costs of the pollution from using fossil fuels that is revenue neutral, popular, and protects families from higher energy prices: http://citizensclimatelobby.org/basics-carbon-fee-dividend

Cash-back carbon pricing is working in Canada and elsewhere, and is coming to the US soon: https://energyinnovationact.org/ 

 

Utilities would do well to embrace this change now, and lobby Congress to accelerate bipartisan legislation. 

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Feb 22, 2021

That's a great point-- the transformative 'inventions' of today may not be just technologies by systems/programs/markets. That's a good way to think outside the box. 

Dr. Amal Khashab's picture
Dr. Amal Khashab on Feb 21, 2021

In my point of view ,the most impressive is mixing all of them into  an electric power system , facilitating transmission the generated electric power from either direct or alternating current through the power transformers to reach safely to the electric bulb .

The connected power system help the hydroelectric power to travel thousands of miles across the country. It also , nowadays facilitate use of off shore wind power. Interconnected transmission networks  is the backbone and the nerves of modern electric power system .

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Feb 22, 2021

Well said, Dr. Khashab. There's a reason they call the grid the largest, most complex machine man has ever made!

Dr. Amal Khashab's picture
Dr. Amal Khashab on Feb 22, 2021

That is true . Its complexity has been doubled nowadays through  the bi-direction active distribution networks concept. .

Steph Fonteyn's picture
Steph Fonteyn on Feb 22, 2021

What about Nikola Tesla?

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Feb 22, 2021

Absolutely! The Edison - Tesla rivalry is by no means dead however many years later, and it's certainly important to recognize the achievements of each of those titans!

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Feb 22, 2021

Thanks to Kevin Anderson for chiming in on this topic with a post of his own. Check it out in full here, but an excerpt: 

As I stopped and pondered on what modern advances have influenced and or is influencing my role in HR/Recruiting I would have to say is my ATS System, I am not excluding the Computer, Internet, Websites, Email address etc. All of these have paved the path for us to recruit/onboard/hire/store data at a remarkable rate of speed and efficiency. 

I am grateful that from the job posting to resume gathering and verification of new hire documentation, let’s not forget the other add on features of E-Verify to background checks to drug screen results all at my fingertips. The ATS System has been a game changer for the candidate and the company and has made a significant impact to my role.

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