(This is Part 2 of a two-part series. Read Part 1, “Inventors scramble to electrify America.”)
The American landscape was forever changed by the arrival of electricity in the late 1890s. What’s surprising, though, is how little it’s changed since. To a time traveler from a century ago, our cars, planes and Blackberries would surely border on the miraculous, but the old wooden power poles that march down our streets would look perfectly familiar.
As we noted last time, America’s electrical distribution system grew out of an earlier technology — the telegraph, whose infrastructure was already largely in place by the 1860s. And while rural areas might have just one set of telegraph lines paralleling the local railroad track, by the century’s end major cities were already bristling with telegraph poles carrying stacks of 10 or more crossarms and scores of cables.
Given the rush to electrify urban areas, the basic infrastructure of the telegraph network was borrowed for electrical distribution as well, with one difference: Unlike low-voltage telegraph wires (and later on telephone lines), alternating current power lines carried lethally high voltages and therefore had to be strung high above street level, on poles with heights of 30 feet, 40 feet, or even more. As electrification advanced from cities into suburbs and finally into rural areas, the wooden power pole became a familiar and even welcome symbol of progress. Amazingly, this same basic infrastructure — little changed from its roots of 150 years ago — can still be found on most any rural or urban street in America.
The splintery, weather-beaten poles that march drunkenly down our streets are so ubiquitous that most of us no longer notice them, but they’re not invisible to everyone. Europeans, for one, stare in disbelief at the chaotic tangles of wire and wood that clutter our streets, no doubt wondering how the most advanced nation on earth could make do with an almost comically primitive-looking network of electrical distribution.
Ironically, the very fact that the United States pioneered electrification is one reason we’re saddled with such an antiquated infrastructure. Nations that once lagged far behind the United States in electrification have since benefitted from the leapfrog effect, which bypasses first-generation technologies in favor of those that have had more time to evolve. Exurban China, for example, which only began to be widely electrified after 1950, now has a modern distribution system that’s substantially underground. What systems remain overhead are carried on simple and maintenance-free concrete poles that blend in with the streetscape.
Europe was electrified only slightly later than the United States, but was served by the fact that it didn’t have America’s abundant supply of timber. Hence, European streets generally have power lines carried on concrete poles, with notably neater results.
A century and a half have passed since Samuel Morse’s fateful decision to put his telegraph lines overhead rather than under the ground, and ever since, those notably anti-aesthetic forces of economics and expedience have largely ensured that overhead is where they’ll stay. So it’s a good thing that all those half-decayed poles, rusty transformers and tangles of wire have become invisible. To us, anyway.