The History of Electrification:
The Birth of our Power Grid

The power grid as we know it began with isolated power generation systems across the world starting in the 1870s. The growth and unification of the systems is what we term as the "Electrification of our World". Power generation and transmission over distance is the focus of this page so we will highlight some of the early important systems.

The Edison Tech Center is working to tell the story of electrification and all the great engineers that made our utility system possible. There are videos on Youtube as well as several web pages on the subject.


Long-Legged Mary Ann type early DC dynamo created and sold by Thomas Edison.

Electric power first saw commercial use in the 1870s. DC systems dominated from the 1870s-1891. The 1891 Electro-Technical Exposition in Frankfurt marked the end of the DC era.

 

Beginnings:

DC power systems dominated in the 1870's and 1880s. "Small" systems were sold to factories around the world, both in urban areas, and remote undeveloped areas for industrial/mining use. Thomas Edison, Charles Brush, and Werner von Siemens lead the industry in electrifying the world. DC systems powered factories and small downtown areas, but did not reach 95% of residents. It became clear that to make the dream real of supplying whole cities with electric power you would need to generate the power in one place (like a large river with great hydo-power potential) and transmit it to the city or factory. This was done by several major advancements:

HVDC Power - This was the first method of transmitting electric power over distance. HVDC is the oldest and "newest" method of distance transmission, today it has reemerged in an advanced form to possibly replace major AC high-voltage routes.

Alternating Current - Developed first in France, Italy and Germany, it quickly proved to be the best method for harnessing electric power. Understanding and building AC systems required more advanced mathematics and physics than DC systems, thus it took longer to develop.

Three Phase Power - Three phase AC power was first developed in Germany by August Haselwander in 1887 and made its major world debut in 1891 at the Lauffen-Frankfurt demonstration [International Electro-Technical Exhibition] (built by Dolivo-Dobrowolsky and Oskar von Miller). Three phase power became the dominant power system by the 1890s, replacing both DC and Westinghouse's 2 phase systems.

One of the first three phase AC generators in the world. This one was created for the Electrical Exposition in Frankfurt,Germany in 1891.

Basic terms:
Dynamo - a device that generates electric power in the form of direct current
Generator - a device that produces electric power in the form of alternating current
Alternator -
another name for a generator but can also be used to describe higher frequency AC used in radio waves
Transformer - a device that uses inductive coils to control alternating current. It may increase or decrease voltage. High voltage is necessary to send electric power any distance.

Accuracy:

There is an abundance of web sites about AC power and hydro power which inaccurately describe a particular site or person as being "the first" We actively improve our page to reflect an accurate international perspective.

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Illustration of a maiden providing electric power from a distance. International Electrical Exhibition Frankfurt 1891

Important early h
ydropower and power transmission sites:
 

1879 Dolgeville Dynamo Dolgeville Mill, Dolgeville, NY, USA. 1879
possibly the earliest hydropower in the US? more research is needed. This is not AC but represents a start to hydro electric power in North America.

 

1881 Niagara Falls, New York -A small dynamo supplied a few stores in in Niagara Falls with power for lighting. AC power came to this area 14 years later.

 

1882 Appleton Wisconsin, US DC power, 12.5 kW. Some claim this to be the first hydroelectric station in the world, this is easily disproved, however it was the first Edison hydroelectric station. It powered Van Depoele's early electric trolleys later in 1886.

 

1882 Miesbach to Munich, Germany- longest DC transmission to this date: 1400 volts 57 km distance built by Marcel Deprez. HVDC
Transmission length: 57 km (37 miles)

 

1884 Lanzo Torinese to Turino, Italy- 2000 volt 3 phase experimental transmission line. This information is from the Deutsches Museum in Munich and must be confirmed.
Transmission length: 40 km (25 miles)

1886 Great Barrington, Massachusetts The first AC power distribution system using transformers is built in the small city of Great Barrington. It used a Siemens generator and Edison's incandescent lights. Stanley and Z.B.D. had used the transformer in separate experimental systems in 1885, Great Barrington was the first full-scale installation.
Transmission length: ~1500 ft (455 meters)

1889 Oregon City Falls, Oregon, USA Longest DC transmission of power in North America is established south of Portland at Station A.
Transmission length 14 miles (DC Power)

1890 Oregon City Falls, Oregon, USA Experimental, 2 phase AC generators installed by Westinghouse at Powerhouse A, it sent power to Portland. It was 5 years later before regular commercial AC power was established in Powerhouse B.
Transmission length 14 miles (AC power)

 

1891: Telluride Colorado- Ames Hydroelectric Plant: 3000V, 133 Hz, single phase. It sent power to mining operations in the mountains near Telluride. It was a Westinghouse experimental project.
Transmission length: 2.5 miles
This website is under construction

1891: Lauffen-Frankfurt Germany - A MAJOR STEP FORWARD: The first long-distance and 3-phase alternating current demonstration. This proved that three phase power worked the best for a power grid. This project was developed by Oskar von Miller and engineered by the founder of 3 phase AC power Mikhail Dolivo-Dobrovolsky.
Transmission length 175 km (109 miles)
This website is under construction

1893: Redlands Mill Creek 1 powerhouse Redlands, CA 1893
The first 3-phase AC commercial power plant in the world. This used C.P. Steinmetz's improved 3-phase system.
Transmission line length: 7 miles

 

1893 Hellsjon - Grangesberg, Sweden: developed by Ernst Danielson, he also was involved in the Mill Creek Plant at Redlands, California in the same year.
Transmission line length: 10 km

 

1895: Pelzer Hydroelectric Plant, South Carolina This plant provided AC 3-phase power to the Pelzer Manufacturing Plant. 3300 V (no transformers were used on transmission)
Transmission line length: 2.75 miles

1895: Folsom Powerhouse, Folsom California Built near a reservoir that catches water from the Sierra Nevada outside of Sacramento.
Transmission line length: 22 miles

*The Folsom Prison opened a small AC powerhouse in 1893 as part of the same hydro system

1895: Willamette Falls, Oregon, USA. Powerhouse B is built on the Willamette River and supplies commercial AC power to Portland 14 miles away.
Transmission line length: 14 miles

1895:Niagara Falls AC Power Plants Westinghouse won the contract to build this power plant. GE won the contract for power transmission to Buffalo. The opening of the power plants was trumpeted in the international press more than any other hydro plant before, or possibly since. For this reason it is mistakenly believed to be the first. Nonetheless it was the largest hydro power plant till that date.
Transmission line length: 25 miles (1896)

1897: Mechanicville Power Station, Mechanicville, New York Transmission line length: 17 miles
This power station was built as an experiment of C.P. Steinmetz and commercial operation.
- Also the site of Albert W. Hull's HVDC experiments in 1932 read more about it.HVDC

 

Schaghticoke Power Station Schaghticoke, NY

Site of an experimental monocyclic power transmission 1908. This was a project by AC Pioneer Charles. P. Steinmetz.

After 1900 the number of power stations exploded. All across the world from Argentina to Singapore AC 3 phase power became established as the best way to supply populations with electric power.

This list will become more refined over time. We are open to suggestions and will change our site to reflect the most accuracy as possible. Please see our Contact page and send us a link to the fact source if you find inaccuracies.

Below: Maps of early power transmission in Europe and North America
Related Topics: The History of the Transformer
Power pole diagram 1917

A Westinghouse early generator

 

Information Sources:
For a list of sources see each of the individual pages above.
Click on the sites above and they will take you to a source.
The Hawkins Electrical Guide. 1915
The General Electric Story. Hall of History Publications. 2000
Willamette Falls - Where the Future Began. 2013


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