(This is Part 1 of a two-part series. Read Part 2, “Why isn’t U.S. electrical system underground?“)
Sight down pretty much any old boulevard in America and what do you see?
Aside from the usual tangle of traffic signals, signs, sidewalks and storefronts, there’s something we’ve become uncannily good at overlooking: power poles.
The United States, having been the first nation to electrify, is now ironically the last to be saddled with an antiquated infrastructure of power distribution. So it is that European or Asian visitors stop and stare with disbelief at the almost comically disheveled phalanx of old wooden poles that march helter skelter down American streets even today. Here, in the most technically advanced nation on earth, the network of power distribution looks like some last remnant of the Wild West.
In fact, that’s precisely what it is. The astonishing modern-day clutter of “telephone poles” dates back to a fateful moment in 1844 when Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph, was constructing the nation’s first telegraph line between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Ezra Cornell, who later founded the eponymous university, had invented a machine to lay an underground pipe in which to string the wires — essentially, our modern concept of undergrounding utilities. Alas, condensation in the pipes and insulation failures caused problems, and it was decided to string the wires above ground on poles instead — a momentous decision whose aesthetic implications are still with us today.
Things got even more complicated after Thomas Edison invented the first practical incandescent bulb in 1879. Since the commercial value of electric lighting was moot without an electrical network to power it — which, needless to say, didn’t exist — Edison’s next project was to find some means of distributing power. Four years later he inaugurated the world’s first electrical distribution system, which provided 110 volts of direct current, or DC, to exactly 59 customers near his Pearl Street laboratory in Lower Manhattan.
Shortly thereafter, industrialist George Westinghouse also turned his attention to the problem of power distribution, but took a different tack. Westinghouse dismissed Edison’s direct current system, which suffered huge efficiency losses when transmitted over the sort of distances a civic power network would require. Instead, Westinghouse chose alternating current, or AC, which used high voltages that could be transmitted with minimal power losses and then could be “stepped down” to usable voltages by transformers. In 1886, Westinghouse and his assistant William Stanley completed the first such practical AC network.
Thus arose the “War of Currents,” a bitter feud between Edison and Westinghouse over whose system was better and — no less important — who would reap the vast commercial benefits. Edison argued that the high voltages used in AC distribution were deadly dangerous, while Westinghouse maintained that the benefits of high-voltage transmission far outweighed the risks.
In 1893, the Westinghouse system was chosen to provide AC power to the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. In the following years, the company completed the first long-range AC power network, transmitting electricity from generators at Niagara Falls to Buffalo, N.Y., some 40 miles distant. Thereafter, the fate of Edison’s DC distribution system was sealed. High-voltage AC power, strung on elevated poles for safety, had won the day, and the American landscape hasn’t been the same since.