While the field of electronics has made stellar advances in the past half century, electrical systems for homes, like so many other aspects of building, have remained firmly mired in the 19th century.
Other than adjusting to our seemingly boundless appetite for energy — the average electrical capacity of our homes has increased tenfold in the past century — the apparatus of home electrical systems has changed so little that Edison would easily understand it. In this era of miniaturization, our light switches are still primitive, clumsy affairs that are many times bigger than necessary. Installing home electrical devices like switches and receptacles still means wrestling with a recalcitrant jumble of wires and contacts little different from the ones your great-grandfather might have wrestled with. In the same span of time, mind you, we’ve gone from man’s first flight at Kitty Hawk to the International Space Station.
A brief glance at the history of electrification underscores how little has changed. Electric lighting began to supplant gas shortly after the dawn of the 20th century. At first, the junction boxes for switches, plugs and fixtures were simply screwed to the surface of walls and ceilings. If electric lighting was replacing gas in an existing house, however, the wires were often run inside the old gas pipes, and the relative neatness of such installations no doubt inspired builders to start putting wires inside of walls instead of on top of them.
The first concealed wiring systems had separate hot and neutral wires running side by side through the structure, spaced about 8 inches apart.
The wires were strung on porcelain insulating knobs where they ran parallel to wooden members, and passed through little porcelain tubes where they had to go through joists or studs. There was nothing inherently wrong with this so-called “knob-and-tube” system — it’s still serving countless old houses quite reliably — except that the wires were prone to damage by rodents or blundering homeowners.
Still, knob-and-tube wiring faded from use after World War II, replaced first by armored cable (“Greenfield”) and later by flexible cable (“Romex”), both of which combined the hot and neutral wires in a single cable instead of separating them. This made for better protection, but more important, it saved builders time and money because there were only half as many holes to drill through the structure.
During this same 100-year period, switches progressed from the early surface-mounted types to the push-button versions of the 1920s and back again to the familiar plastic toggle switches most people still use today.
So, while we’ve seen minor changes in operation — first a click, then a push, and now a click again — we’re still using devices that are fundamentally no different than they were a century ago. Put another way, if cars had progressed at the same rate, you’d still be driving a Model T.
In an age of routine electronic miracles, how can this be? By all rights, light switches could be the size of postage stamps, and could be installed (or replaced) in a matter of seconds by snapping them into a modular socket, instead of hooking them to an Edisonian tangle of wires. The few companies that do offer progressive electronic lighting controls have managed to make them both too complex and too expensive, once again leading builders to stick with the tried-and-true, two-dollar toggle switch.
What the electrical industry really needs is a few Mochaccino-guzzling Silicon Valley types. At the very least, they could drag residential wiring systems into the 20th century, if not the current one.