Those of us who make our living via computers can’t imagine going back in time even to word processors, much less manual typewriters. Even discs of linoleum byproducts known as records now seem ancient. But, less than a century ago there were plenty of people who hadn’t quite adapted to the concept of something we now take for granted: electricity.
Electricity has a lengthy and complicated history. You might as well ask who invented the wheel or the toothbrush. Sitting in my parents’ home are four relics of a seemingly bygone era – kerosene lamps. They belonged to my paternal grandparents; my father recalls the lamps being put to use during World War II “lights out” drills.
Yet, with the exception of some rural areas, electricity had become relatively commonplace by the 1940s. Just two decades earlier, however, electric companies began making concerted attempts to convince both businesses and individuals of electricity’s usefulness. Here’s an ad that ran in the October 5, 1920 issue of the “New York Tribune,” in which the New York Edison Company (now ConEdison) states its case:
“Never before have the questions of economy and efficiency in production been of such importance as now in the industrial life of the country. This is true in the large plant as all as in the small shop. Electricity is proving the most effective agency in solving these various problems as they arise.”
By 1900, 30 electricity companies existed in the New York City area. In 1920, New York Edison constructed a power generation facility that could generate up to 770,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh). Today New York City uses about 100,000 kWh per minute.
One unfortunate side invention? Utility bills!