Though the phenomena of electrical charge was observed and studied by ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Arabs, the first scientific study of electricity did not begin until after 1600. William Gilbert, Robert Boyle, Benjamin Franklin, Luigi Galvani, and Allessandro Volta all investigated this area of science before 1800. Hans Christian Olmsted, Andre Marie Ampere, and Michael Faraday all made significant contributions to the scientific understanding of electricity before 1850, and James Maxwell developed the theoretical formulas necessary for a deeper understanding of the connections between electricity and magnetism in the 1861 and 1862 with his work On Physical Lines of Force.
The importance of electricity to the United States came during the second half of the nineteenth century, coinciding with the second American industrial revolution and the subsequent advancements in railroads, communications, manufacturing, and power transmission. Thomas Edison organized his scientific laboratory at Menlo Park in the 1870s to develop and patent numerous electrical technologies and began powering lower Manhattan with the Pearl Street Station in 1881. Joseph Swan and Hiram Maxim developed viable incandescent lighting networks for city streets and factories in the 1880s and 1890s. Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse partnered from 1888 to 1891 to work on the competing alternating current (AC) technologies, such as traction motors, long-distance power distribution, and wireless transmission of energy and radio waves. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1875, expanding the nation's communications networks through cities and rural areas alike by 1900. That year, more than 6,000 independent phone companies had 600,000 phones in operation and Bell Telephone had another 800,000, focused primarily on long-distance service.
As the American people increasingly accepted and adopted electrical power in their lives, the economic benefits of electrical power became important to politicians as well. They knew that they needed to support the growth of electrical power infrastructures, especially in the rural United States. The leaders of the Populist movement in the late nineteenth century were concerned with the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few. They sought out and promoted ideas that supported and promoted the independence of farmers, laborers, and small-scale businessmen. Electrical power networks fit this philosophy, and the leaders in electrical development and politicians could easily support both sides. Capitalists and urban elites subscribed to the mantra of modern economic opportunity and industrialization on an ever-expanding scale, an easy sell for electric industry leaders. To the farmers, laborers, and small businessmen, advocates of wide-scale expansion of electrical networks could promote modernity, electrical tools to ease workloads, and connection with the larger world through communication networks. The rural population could no longer be easily ignored or shut out of politics. With electricity and its accompanying technologies, they learned about the world as fast as city people, and their voices could be heard just as quickly—at least in theory.
Electricity became increasingly important to American society in the 1920s and 1930s. Despite the hard sell, most rural areas had gone without the benefits of electricity for popular use, including light, running water, and better phone systems. The Roosevelt administration's creation of, and its success with, the Tennessee Valley Authority led directly to the Rural Electrification Administration. In 1930, only 10 percent of rural areas had access to electricity, while 90 percent of urban areas were on the grid. Between 1930 and 1940, this percentage was raised to more than 80 percent for farmers and rural villages. The debate over public utilities in towns across the United States after 1900 involved primarily electricity and water, leading politicians into deeper involvement with scientists and investors who understood both the complexity and economic import of the developing electrical technologies. By the 1940s, electricity was seen as a necessity to modern American life and economic vitality, far surpassing the initial interest in electricity for pure scientific inquiry and small-scale application. Electricity literally became the lifeblood of the United States, powering businesses and communication and connecting citizens not only from coast to coast but from farm and village to city.
See also: Gilded Age ; New Deal ; Progressivism ; Tesla, Nikola (1856–1943)
Brigham, Jay L. Empowering the West: Electrical Politics before FDR. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1998.
Brown, D. Clayton. Electricity for Rural America: The Fight for the REA. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980.
Hughes, Thomas P. Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880–1930. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.
Marvin, Carolyn. When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking about Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Ostler, Jeffrey. Prairie Populism: The Fate of Agrarian Radicalism in Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa, 1880–1892. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1993.
Tobey, Ronald C. Technology as Freedom: The New Deal and the Electrical Modernization of the American Home. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.