Energy through the Ages: The Golden Age of Electricity

Energy through the Ages: The Golden Age of Electricity

In the late 19th century, the growth of America’s economy was powered by the increasing use of electricity to power businesses.


Thomas Edison invented the first low-voltage direct current (DC) electric distribution system for businesses and residential homes. By 1882, he was able to light the streets of New York using filament bulbs.

In 1883, Brooklyn-born William Stanley quit a law course at Yale to develop the first practical transformer. Inspired by Michael Faraday’s experiments and Charles F. Brush’s work in lighting and batteries, he used an alternating current (AC) system. His solution used a transformer to step up voltage for long-distance transmission and then step it back down again safely. Using a parallel-connected transformer, his system reduced power loss and was therefore cheaper than Edison’s.

Stanley’s efforts were closely monitored by the New York inventor and industrialist George Westinghouse, who became first his employer, then his patron. In March 1886, using his parallel-connected transformers, Stanley was able to power lamps for 23 businesses along the length of Main Street in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

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The fierce arguments surrounding the opposing solutions of DC and AC became known as the ‘War of Currents’, with Edison’s supporters on one side and Westinghouse’s on the other. AC emerged as the winner, and Stanley’s transformer became the basis of modern electrical power distribution.

In 1890, he formed the Stanley Electric Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to make transformers. The company was bought out in 1903 by General Electric, which raised production hugely, boosting America’s industrial output.

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