Chronicles of America 

The Fathers of Electricity

It may startle some reader to be told that the foundations of modern electrical science were definitely established in the Elizabethan Age. The England of Elizabeth, of Shakespeare, of Drake and the sea-dogs, is seldom thought of as the cradle of the science of electricity. Nevertheless, it was; just as surely as it was the birthplace of the Shakespearian drama, of the Authorized Version of the Bible, or of that maritime adventure and colonial enterprise which finally grew and blossomed into the United States of America.

The accredited father of the science of electricity and magnetism is William Gilbert, who was a physician and man of learning at the court of Elizabeth. Prior to him, all that was known of these phenomena was what the ancients knew, that the lodestone possessed magnetic properties and that amber and jet, when rubbed, would attract bits of paper or other substances of small specific gravity. Gilbert's great treatise "On the Magnet", printed in Latin in 1600, containing the fruits of his researches and experiments for many years, indeed provided the basis for a new science.

On foundations well and truly laid by Gilbert several Europeans, like Otto von Guericke of Germany, Du Fay of France, and Stephen Gray of England, worked before Benjamin Franklin and added to the structure of electrical knowledge. The Leyden jar, in which the mysterious force could be stored, was invented in Holland in 1745 and in Germany almost simultaneously.

Franklin's important discoveries are outlined in the first chapter of this book. He found out, as we have seen, that electricity and lightning are one and the same, and in the lightning rod he made the first practical application of electricity. Afterwards Cavendish of England, Coulomb of France, Galvani of Italy, all brought new bricks to the pile. Following them came a group of master builders, among whom may be mentioned: Volta of Italy, Oersted of Denmark, Ampere of France, Ohm of Germany, Faraday of England, and Joseph Henry of America.

Among these men, who were, it should be noted, theoretical investigators, rather than practical inventors like Morse, or Bell, or Edison, the American Joseph Henry ranks high. Henry was born at Albany in 1799 and was educated at the Albany Academy. Intending to practice medicine, he studied the natural sciences. He was poor and earned his daily bread by private tutoring. He was an industrious and brilliant student and soon gave evidence of being endowed with a powerful mind. He was appointed in 1824 an assistant engineer for the survey of a route for a State road, three hundred miles long, between the Hudson River and Lake Erie. The experience he gained in this work changed the course of his career; he decided to follow civil and mechanical engineering instead of medicine. Then in 1826 he became teacher of mathematics and natural philosophy in the Albany Academy.

It was in the Albany Academy that he began that wide series of experiments and investigations which touched so many phases of the great problem of electricity. His first discovery was that a magnet could be immensely strengthened by winding it with insulated wire. He was the first to employ insulated wire wound as on a spool and was able finally to make a magnet which would lift thirty-five hundred pounds. He first showed the difference between "quantity" magnets composed of short lengths of wire connected in parallel, excited by a few large cells, and "intensity" magnets wound with a single long wire and excited by a battery composed of cells in series. This was an original discovery, greatly increasing both the immediate usefulness of the magnet and its possibilities for future experiments.

The learned men of Europe, Faraday, Sturgeon, and the rest, were quick to recognize the value of the discoveries of the young Albany schoolmaster. Sturgeon magnanimously said: "Professor Henry has been enabled to produce a magnetic force which totally eclipses every other in the whole annals of magnetism; and no parallel is to be found since the miraculous suspension of the celebrated Oriental imposter in his iron coffin."1

Henry also discovered the phenomena of self induction and mutual induction. A current sent through a wire in the second story of the building induced currents through a similar wire in the cellar two floors below. In this discovery Henry anticipated Faraday though his results as to mutual induction were not published until he had heard rumors of Faraday's discovery, which he thought to be something different.

The attempt to send signals by electricity had been made many times before Henry became interested in the problem. On the invention of Sturgeon's magnet there had been hopes in England of a successful solution, but in the experiments that followed the current became so weak after a few hundred feet that the idea was pronounced impracticable. Henry strung a mile of fine wire in the Academy, placed an "intensity" battery at one end, and made the armature strike a bell at the other. Thus he discovered the essential principle of the electric telegraph. This discovery was made in 1831, the year before the idea of a working electric telegraph flashed on the mind of Morse. There was no occasion for the controversy which took place later as to who invented the telegraph. That was Morse's achievement, but the discovery of the great fact, which startled Morse into activity, was Henry's achievement. In Henry's own words: "This was the first discovery of the fact that a galvanic current could be transmitted to a great distance with so little a diminution of force as to produce mechanical effects, and of the means by which the transmission could be accomplished. I saw that the electric telegraph was now practicable." He says further, however: "I had not in mind any particular form of telegraph, but referred only to the general fact that it was now demonstrated that a galvanic current could be transmitted to great distances, with sufficient power to produce mechanical effects adequate to the desired object."2

Henry next turned to the possibility of a magnetic engine for the production of power and succeeded in making a reciprocating-bar motor, on which he installed the first automatic pole changer, or commutator, ever used with an electric battery. He did not succeed in producing direct rotary motion. His bar oscillated like the walking beam of a steamboat.

Henry was appointed in 1839. Professor of Natural Philosophy in the College of New Jersey, better known today as Princeton University. There he repeated his old experiments on a larger scale, confirmed Steinheil's experiment of using the earth as return conductor, showed how a feeble current would be strengthened, and how a small magnet could be used as a circuit maker and breaker. Here were the principles of the telegraph relay and the dynamo.

Why, then, if the work of Henry was so important, is his name almost forgotten, except by men of science, and not given to any one of the practical applications of electricity? The answer is plain. Henry was an investigator, not an inventor. He states his position very clearly: "I never myself attempted to reduce the principles to practice, or to apply any of my discoveries to processes in the arts. My whole attention exclusive of my duties to the College, was devoted to original scientific investigations, and I left to others what I considered in a scientific view of subordinate importance--the application of my discoveries to useful purposes in the arts. Besides this I partook of the feeling common to men of science, which disinclines them to secure to themselves the advantages of their discoveries by a patent."

Then, too, his talents were soon turned to a wider field. The bequest of James Smithson, that farsighted Englishman, who left his fortune to the United States to found "the Smithsonian Institution, for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men," was responsible for the diffusion of Henry's activities. The Smithsonian Institution was founded at Washington in 1846, and Henry was fittingly chosen its Secretary, that is, its chief executive officer. And from that time until his death in 1878, over thirty years, he devoted himself to science in general.

He studied terrestrial magnetism and building materials. He reduced meteorology to a science, collecting reports by telegraph, made the first weather map, and issued forecasts of the weather based upon definite knowledge rather than upon signs. He became a member of the Lighthouse Board in 1852 and was the head after 1871. The excellence of marine illuminants and fog signals today is largely due to his efforts. Though he was later drawn into a controversy with Morse over the credit for the invention of the telegraph, he used his influence to procure the renewal of Morse's patent. He listened with attention to Alexander Graham Bell, who had the idea that electric wires might be made to carry the human voice, and encouraged him to proceed with his experiments. "He said," Bell writes, "that he thought it was the germ of a great invention and advised me to work at it without publishing. I said that I recognized the fact that there were mechanical difficulties in the way that rendered the plan impracticable at the present time. I added that I felt that I had not the electrical knowledge necessary to overcome the difficulties. His laconic answer was, 'GET IT!' I cannot tell you how much these two words have encouraged me."

Henry had blazed the way for others to work out the principles of the electric motor, and a few experimenters attempted to follow his lead. Thomas Davenport, a blacksmith of Brandon, Vermont, built an electric car in 1835, which he was able to drive on the road, and so made himself the pioneer of the automobile in America. Twelve years later Moses G. Farmer exhibited at various places in New England an electric-driven locomotive, and in 1851 Charles Grafton Page drove an electric car, on the tracks of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, from Washington to Bladensburg, at the rate of nineteen miles an hour. But the cost of batteries was too great and the use of the electric motor in transportation not yet practicable.

The great principle of the dynamo, or electric generator, was discovered by Faraday and Henry but the process of its development into an agency of practical power consumed many years; and without the dynamo for the generation of power the electric motor had to stand still and there could be no practicable application of electricity to transportation, or manufacturing, or lighting. So it was that, except for the telegraph, whose story is told in another chapter, there was little more American achievement in electricity until after the Civil War.

The arc light as a practical illuminating device came in 1878. It was introduced by Charles F. Brush, a young Ohio engineer and graduate of the University of Michigan. Others before him had attacked the problem of electric lighting, but lack of suitable carbons stood in the way of their success. Brush overcame the chief difficulties and made several lamps to burn in series from one dynamo. The first Brush lights used for street illumination were erected in Cleveland, Ohio, and soon the use of arc lights became general. Other inventors improved the apparatus, but still there were drawbacks. For outdoor lighting and for large halls they served the purpose, but they could not be used in small rooms. Besides, they were in series, that is, the current passed through every lamp in turn, and an accident to one threw the whole series out of action. The whole problem of indoor lighting was to be solved by one of America's most famous inventors.

The antecedents of Thomas Alva Edison in America may be traced back to the time when Franklin was beginning his career as a printer in Philadelphia. The first American Edisons appear to have come from Holland about 1730 and settled on the Passaic River in New Jersey. Edison's grandfather, John Edison, was a Loyalist in the Revolution who found refuge in Nova Scotia and subsequently moved to Upper Canada. His son, Samuel Edison, thought he saw a moral in the old man's exile. His father had taken the King's side and had lost his home; Samuel would make no such error. So, when the Canadian Rebellion of 1837 broke out, Samuel Edison, aged thirty-three, arrayed himself on the side of the insurgents. This time, however, the insurgents lost, and Samuel was obliged to flee to the United States, just as his father had fled to Canada. He finally settled at Milan, Ohio, and there, in 1847, in a little brick house, which is still standing, Thomas Alva Edison was born.

When the boy was seven the family moved to Port Huron, Michigan. The fact that he attended school only three months and soon became self-supporting was not due to poverty. His mother, an educated woman of Scotch extraction, taught him at home after the schoolmaster reported that he was "addled." His desire for money to spend on chemicals for a laboratory which he had fitted up in the cellar led to his first venture in business. "By a great amount of persistence," he says, "I got permission to go on the local train as newsboy. The local train from Port Huron to Detroit, a distance of sixty-three miles, left at 7 A.M. and arrived again at 9.30 P.M. After being on the train for several months I started two stores in Port Huron--one for periodicals, and the other for vegetables, butter, and berries in the season. They were attended by two boys who shared in the profits." Moreover, young Edison bought produce from the farmers' wives along the line which he sold at a profit. He had several newsboys working for him on other trains; he spent hours in the Public Library in Detroit; he fitted up a laboratory in an unused compartment of one of the coaches, and then bought a small printing press which he installed in the car and began to issue a newspaper which he printed on the train. All before he was fifteen years old.

But one day Edison's career as a traveling newsboy came to a sudden end. He was at work in his moving laboratory when a lurch of the train jarred a stick of burning phosphorus to the floor and set the car on fire. The irate conductor ejected him at the next station, giving him a violent box on the ear, which permanently injured his hearing, and dumped his chemicals and printing apparatus on the platform.

Having lost his position, young Edison soon began to dabble in telegraphy, in which he had already become interested, "probably," as he says, "from visiting telegraph offices with a chum who had tastes similar to mine." He and this chum strung a line between their houses and learned the rudiments of writing by wire. Then a station master on the railroad, whose child Edison had saved from danger, took Edison under his wing and taught him the mysteries of railway telegraphy. The boy of sixteen held positions wt small stations near home for a few months and then began a period of five years of apparently purposeless wandering as a tramp telegrapher. Toledo, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Memphis, Louisville, Detroit, were some of the cities in which he worked, studied, experimented, and played practical jokes on his associates. He was eager to learn something of the principles of electricity but found few from whom he could learn.

Edison arrived in Boston in 1868, practically penniless, and applied for a position as night operator. "The manager asked me when I was ready to go to work. 'Now,' I replied." In Boston he found men who knew something of electricity, and, as he worked at night and cut short his sleeping hours, he found time for study. He bought and studied Faraday's works. Presently came the first of his multitudinous inventions, an automatic vote recorder, for which he received a patent in 1868. This necessitated a trip to Washington, which he made on borrowed money, but he was unable to arouse any interest in the device. "After the vote recorder," he says, "I invented a stock ticker, and started a ticker service in Boston; had thirty or forty subscribers and operated from a room over the Gold Exchange." This machine Edison attempted to sell in New York, but he returned to Boston without having succeeded. He then invented a duplex telegraph by which two messages might be sent simultaneously, but at a test the machine failed because of the stupidity of the assistant.

Penniless and in debt, Edison arrived again in New York in 1869. But now fortune favored him. The Gold Indicator Company was a concern furnishing to its subscribers by telegraph the Stock Exchange prices of gold. The company's instrument was out of order. By a lucky chance Edison was on the spot to repair it, which he did successfully, and this led to his appointment as superintendent at a salary of three hundred dollars a month. When a change in the ownership of the company threw him out of the position he formed, with Franklin L. Pope, the partnership of Pope, Edison, and Company, the first firm of electrical engineers in the United States.

Not long afterwards Edison brought out the invention which set him on the high road to great achievement. This was the improved stock ticker, for which the Gold and Stock Telegraph Company paid him forty thousand dollars. It was much more than he had expected. "I had made up my mind," he says, "that, taking into consideration the time and killing pace I was working at, I should be entitled to $5000, but could get along with $3000." The money, of course, was paid by check. Edison had never received a check before and he had to be told how to cash it.

Edison immediately set up a shop in Newark and threw himself into many and various activities. He remade the prevailing system of automatic telegraphy and introduced it into England. He experimented with submarine cables and worked out a system of quadruplex telegraphy by which one wire was made to do the work of four. These two inventions were bought by Jay Gould for his Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph Company. Gould paid for the quadruplex system thirty thousand dollars, but for the automatic telegraph he paid nothing. Gould presently acquired control of the Western Union; and, having thus removed competition from his path, "he then," says Edison, "repudiated his contract with the automatic telegraph people and they never received a cent for their wires or patents, and I lost three years of very hard labor. But I never had any grudge against him because he was so able in his line, and as long as my part was successful the money with me was a secondary consideration. When Gould got the Western Union I knew no further progress in telegraphy was possible, and I went into other lines."3

In fact, however, the need of money forced Edison later on to resume his work for the Western Union Telegraph Company, both in telegraphy and telephony. His connection with the telephone is told in another volume of this series.4 He invented a carbon transmitter and sold it to the Western Union for one hundred thousand dollars, payable in seventeen annual installments of six thousand dollars. He made a similar agreement for the same sum offered him for the patent of the electro-motograph. He did not realize that these installments were only simple interest upon the sums due him. These agreements are typical of Edison's commercial sense in the early years of his career as an inventor. He worked only upon inventions for which there was a possible commercial demand and sold them for a trifle to get the money to meet the pay rolls of his different shops. Later the inventor learned wisdom and associated with himself keen business men to their common profit.

Edison set up his laboratories and factories at Menlo Park, New Jersey, in 1876, and it was there that he invented the phonograph, for which he received the first patent in 1878. It was there, too, that he began that wonderful series of experiments which gave to the world the incandescent lamp. He had noticed the growing importance of open arc lighting, but was convinced that his mission was to produce an electric lamp for use within doors. Forsaking for the moment his newborn phonograph, Edison applied himself in earnest to the problem of the lamp. His first search was for a durable filament which would burn in a vacuum. A series of experiments with platinum wire and with various refractory metals led to no satisfactory results. Many other substances were tried, even human hair. Edison concluded that carbon of some sort was the solution rather than a metal. Almost coincidently, Swan, an Englishman, who had also been wrestling with this problem, came to the same conclusion. Finally, one day in October, 1879, after fourteen months of hard work and the expenditure of forty thousand dollars, a carbonized cotton thread sealed in one of Edison's globes lasted forty hours. "If it will burn forty hours now," said Edison, "I know I can make it burn a hundred." And so he did. A better filament was needed. Edison found it in carbonized strips of bamboo.

Edison developed his own type of dynamo, the largest ever made up to that time, and, along with the Edison incandescent lamps, it was one of the wonders of the Paris Electrical Exposition of 1881. The installation in Europe and America of plants for service followed. Edison's first great central station, supplying power for three thousand lamps, was erected at Holborn Viaduct, London, in 1882, and in September of that year the Pearl Street Station in New York City, the first central station in America, was put into operation.

The incandescent lamp and the central power station, considered together, may be regarded as one of the most fruitful conceptions in the history of applied electricity. It comprised a complete generating, distributing, and utilizing system, from the dynamo to the very lamp at the fixture, ready for use. It even included a meter to determine the current actually consumed. The success of the system was complete, and as fast as lamps and generators could be produced they were installed to give a service at once recognized as superior to any other form of lighting. By 1885 the Edison lighting system was commercially developed in all its essentials, though still subject to many improvements and capable of great enlargement, and soon Edison. sold out his interests in it and turned his great mind to other inventions.

The inventive ingenuity of others brought in time better and more economical incandescent lamps. From the filaments of bamboo fiber the next step was to filaments of cellulose in the form of cotton, duly prepared and carbonized. Later (1905) came the metalized carbon filament and finally the employment of tantalum or tungsten. The tungsten lamps first made were very delicate, and it was not until W. D. Coolidge, in the research laboratories of the General Electric Company at Schenectady, invented a process for producing ductile tungsten that they became available for general use.

The dynamo and the central power station brought the electric motor into action. The dynamo and the motor do precisely opposite things. The dynamo converts mechanical energy into electric energy. The motor transforms electric energy into mechanical energy. But the two work in partnership and without the dynamo to manufacture the power the motor could not thrive. Moreover, the central station was needed to distribute the power for transportation as well as for lighting.

The first motors to use Edison station current were designed by Frank J. Sprague, a graduate of the Naval Academy, who had worked with Edison, as have many of the foremost electrical engineers of America and Europe. These small motors possessed several advantages over the big steam engine. They ran smoothly and noiselessly on account of the absence of reciprocating parts. They consumed current only when in use. They could be installed and connected with a minimum of trouble and expense. They emitted neither smell nor smoke. Edison built an experimental electric railway line at Menlo Park in 1880 and proved its practicability. Meanwhile, however, as he worked on his motors and dynamos, he was anticipated by others in some of his inventions. It would not be fair to say that Edison and Sprague alone developed the electric railway, for there were several others who made important contributions. Stephen D. Field of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, had a patent which the Edison interests found it necessary to acquire; C. J. Van Depoele and Leo Daft made important contributions to the trolley system. In Cleveland in 1884 an electric railway on a small scale was opened to the public. But Sprague's first electric railway, built at Richmond, Virginia, in 1887, as a complete system, is generally hailed as the true pioneer of electric transportation in the United States. Thereafter the electric railway spread quickly over the land, obliterating the old horsecars and greatly enlarging the circumference of the city. Moreover, on the steam roads, at all the great terminals, and wherever there were tunnels to be passed through, the old giant steam engine in time yielded place to the electric motor.

The application of the electric motor to the "vertical railway," or elevator, made possible the steel skyscraper. The elevator, of course, is an old device. It was improved and developed in America by Elisha Graves Otis, an inventor who lived and died before the Civil War and whose sons afterward erected a great business on foundations laid by him. The first Otis elevators were moved by steam or hydraulic power. They were slow, noisy, and difficult of control. After the electric motor came in; the elevator soon changed its character and adapted itself to the imperative demands of the towering, skeleton-framed buildings which were rising in every city.

Edison, already famous as "the Wizard of Menlo Park," established his factories and laboratories at West Orange, New Jersey, in 1887, whence he has since sent forth a constant stream of inventions, some new and startling, others improvements on old devices. The achievements of several other inventors in the electrical field have been only less noteworthy than his. The new profession of electrical engineering called to its service great numbers of able men. Manufacturers of electrical machinery established research departments and employed inventors. The times had indeed changed since the day when Morse, as a student at Yale College, chose art instead of electricity as his calling, because electricity afforded him no means of livelihood.

From Edison's plant in 1903 came a new type of the storage battery, which he afterwards improved. The storage battery, as every one knows, is used in the propulsion of electric vehicles and boats, in the operation of block-signals, in the lighting of trains, and in the ignition and starting of gasoline engines. As an adjunct of the gas-driven automobile, it renders the starting of the engine independent of muscle and so makes possible the general use of the automobile by women as well as men.

The dynamo brought into service not only light and power but heat; and the electric furnace in turn gave rise to several great metallurgical and chemical industries. Elihu Thomson's process of welding by means of the arc furnace found wide and varied applications. The commercial production of aluminum is due to the electric furnace and dates from 1886. It was in that year that H. Y. Castner of New York and C. M. Hall of Pittsburgh both invented the methods of manufacture which gave to the world the new metal, malleable and ductile, exceedingly light, and capable of a thousand uses. Carborundum is another product of the electric furnace. It was the invention of Edward B. Acheson, a graduate of the Edison laboratories. Acheson, in 1891, was trying to make artificial diamonds and produced instead the more useful carborundum, as well as the Acheson graphite, which at once found its place in industry. Another valuable product of the electric furnace was the calcium carbide first produced in 1892 by Thomas L. Wilson of Spray, North Carolina. This calcium carbide is the basis of acetylene gas, a powerful illuminant, and it is widely used in metallurgy, for welding and other purposes.

At the same time with these developments the value of the alternating current came to be recognized. The transformer, an instrument developed on foundations laid by Henry and Faraday, made it possible to transmit electrical energy over great distances with little loss of power. Alternating currents were transformed by means of this instrument at the source, and were again converted at the point of use to a lower and convenient potential for local distribution and consumption. The first extensive use of the alternating current was in arc lighting, where the higher potentials could be employed on series lamps. Perhaps the chief American inventor in the domain of the alternating current is Elihu Thomson, who began his useful career as Professor of Chemistry and Mechanics in the Central High School of Philadelphia. Another great protagonist of the alternating current was George Westinghouse, who was quite as much an improver and inventor as a manufacturer of machinery. Two other inventors, at least, should not be forgotten in this connection: Nicola Tesla and Charles S. Bradley. Both of them had worked for Edison.

The turbine (from the Latin turbo, meaning a whirlwind) is the name of the motor which drives the great dynamos for the generation of electric energy. It may be either a steam turbine or a water turbine. The steam turbine of Curtis or Parsons is today the prevailing engine. But the development of hydro-electric power has already gone far. It is estimated that the electric energy produced in the United States by the utilization of water powers every year equals the power product of forty million tons of coal, or about one-tenth of the coal which is consumed in the production of steam. Yet hydro-electricity is said to be only in its beginnings, for not more than a tenth of the readily available water power of the country is actually in use.

The first commercial hydro-station for the transmission of power in America was established in 1891 at Telluride, Colorado. It was practically duplicated in the following year at Brodie, Colorado. The motors and generators for these stations came from the Westinghouse plant in Pittsburgh, and Westinghouse also supplied the turbo-generators which inaugurated, in 1895, the delivery of power from Niagara Falls.


  1. Philosophical Magazine, vol. XI, p. 199 (March, 1832).
  2. Deposition of Joseph Henry, September 7, 1849, printed in Morse, "The Electra-Magnetic Telegraph", p. 91.
  3. Quoted in Dyer and Martin. "Edison", vol. 1, p. 164.
  4. Hendrick, "The Age of Big Business".