Electrical Innovation

Posted: June 1, 2014 in Energy

Think about some of the most important innovations that have occurred over the past two centuries. Without a doubt, there are many examples that would come to mind, but one that should be high on the list is the electrical grid. The grid has become vital to the modern day life, at least in the more developed economies, and are important in the growth of the developing economies trying to increase the availability of electricity to the people. In this post, I want to share what I find to be an interesting story about the development of the grid into what we have today. In telling the story, I want to focus on the figures that brought this development along, the “fathers of the grid”, something I came across from Philip Schewe. Schewe’s book, The Grid, is a great read and goes into the entire history of the grid in great detail with an interesting prose.

The point of sharing this is two part: 1) It presents an informational and interesting look into the history of this system, and 2) To provide a lesson that allows us to view the process of innovation that can take place for a variety of technologies. Often, the development of an innovation comes over time, where different steps of the process are led by various people. Sometimes the initial discovery of an improvement (system or product or technology, etc) takes time before the real innovation takes place, where implementation occurs. It is the connection of these phases that is crucial to adoption.

Thomas Edison is the first of these figures. Edison was the inventor of the grid, who was responsible for the first phase of application, and had created the system for the grid to be possible. After showing some of the potential, he was able to empower the idea through his ability to maneuver through the political and financial waters to convince people of the potential.

Following Edison, came Nicola Tesla and George Westinghouse who together powered the next stage of the grid’s development. Tesla and Westinghouse led the charge on utilizing AC currents, rather than the DC current of Edison. The AC systems allowed for a more dispersed grid, which gave the ability to connect a greater area of space to receive the power from the grid. In doing this, Tesla was responsible for developing the motor that allowed for AC to work and Westinghouse facilitated the wide-scale adoption of Tesla’s systems.

The last “father” I want to mention was Samuel Insull, who often is regarded with some distaste in the history books, but played a crucial role in developing the grid. Insull sought monopoly of the market, and in doing so, facilitated the large scale adoption of the grid, along with an increase in the demand for electricity. By doing so, he helped to create the economies of scale that allowed for a huge expansion of the network, which gave power to a vast amount of area and helped lead to the ability of all people to reach power, in the US.

These four figures together were largely responsible for the administration of electricity to millions of people, that has allowed a greater role of growth and independence in the modern society. This post is a just a slight insight to this story, and if you are interested in more I strongly recommend Schewe’s book, which again provides an interesting look into this history. The connection of these figures allowed the adoption, where the ability of each to link their insight into the previous is what led to the grid we have today.



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