A look back at electric utility history

The electric utility industry, which evolved from the gas and electric carbon-arc commercial and street lighting system, began around 1880 when Thomas Edison’s Pearl Street power station started generating electricity in lower Manhattan.

Its main purpose was to provide power for one of Edison’s most famous inventions: the light bulb. That first power station provided electricity to 59 customers.

A look back at electric utility history

The first AC power distribution system that used electric transformers was built in 1886 and used to electrify the city of Great Barrington, Mass. Three-phase AC power was sent across a long distance in Lauffen-Frankfurt, Germany in 1891.

Today’s electric utilities are working to transition away from analog and electromechanical technologies and move toward the all-digital smart grid. But long before today’s terms were coined, the electric power industry had other debates.

How should line workers be kept safe? What about getting power to air raid shelters during a war? Should electric meters be hidden from view, or integrated into the décor of a home?

From the pages of Electric Light & Power magazine, founded in 1922 and now in its 91st year, here’s a look back at the electric utility industry from those who wrote about it throughout the 20th century.

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