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A History of Residential Electricity – Part 1

Old Electrical Panel for knob and tube wiring
Old Electrical Panel for knob and tube wiring

As with many things, a powered home was started as a luxury available to the wealthiest residents. The first house to be powered was J.P. Morgan’s and required his personal lighting engineer. Morgan hired Thomas Edison to build a generator which powered the 400 light bulbs in his home. The two launch a business partnership that would alter the future of electrical distribution. 

Edison hired Nikola Tesla to repair his direct current (DC) motor, which Tesla did as well as invent a more efficient method utilizing alternating currents (AC). Edison refused to pay Tesla for his work. After Tesla, with the financial backing of backing of George Westinghouse, launched his own electrical company and developed his AC technology. 

During the “War of the Currents” at the turn of the twentieth century, both Tesla and Edison made strides in bringing electricity into people’s homes. A public feud accused AC and arc lighting as dangerous led to doubts of the new technology. 

Edison’s direct current was bringing electricity into people’s homes, but it was not powerful enough to power cities and street lights. Even with incandescent bulbs, direct current was inefficient over distances more than a mile. Tesla and Westinghouse sought to meet the needs of cities with alternating current that could use existing plants to power cities by simply extending the wires rather than building new power stations. When Tesla then developed a motor that operate on alternating current, it empowered businesses to run on electricity and eliminated the last advantage of direct current. Tesla was able to create a system of powering both homes and street lights from a central station. 

By 1896, alternating current was used to owner the city of Buffalo, and two years later it would power 45,000 lights in New York City. Alternating current surged ahead as the superior technology, but as Tesla’s other projects failed, he fell from prominence and the task of pursing alternating currents became Edison’s. 

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