AN INTRODUCTION TO ELECTRICITY GENERATION:HISTORY OF ELECTRICITY GENERATION

HISTORY OF ELECTRICITY GENERATION

The roots of the modern electricity-generating industry are found in the early and middle years of the 19th century and in the work of men such as Andre´ Ampe`re, Michael Faraday, Benjamin Franklin, and Alessandro Volta. It was during this period that scientists began to forge an understanding of the nature of electrical charge and magnetic fields. The chemical battery that converted chemical energy into electricity had also been discovered and permitted the properties of a flowing electrical charge (an electric current) to be explored. This also allowed the development of the telegraph, the first electrical means of communication. It was Faraday who was able to establish the relationship between electric currents and magnetism, a relationship that makes it possible to generate electricity with moving machinery rather than taking it exclusively from chemical batteries. His discoveries opened the way to the use of rotating engines as a source of electrical power.

The widening understanding of electricity coincided with the development of the steam engine as well as the widespread use of gas for fuel and lighting. Lighting, in particular, caught the public’s imagination and one of the first major uses for electricity was as a source of light. In the United States, Thomas Edison developed the carbon filament that produced light from an electric cur- rent. Similar work was carried out in the United Kingdom by Sir Joseph Swan.

Some of the first rotating machines used for electricity generation were based on water wheels and dynamos. However, water was not always available where power was needed and the trend among municipal power stations, the first important type of public power plant, was often to utilize steam engines and generators. These stations were initially built to provide electricity for light- ing in cites. Early plants were generally small with a limited number of cus- tomers, but the area supplied by each power station gradually grew in size. At the same time there was little standardization and supply voltages varied from place to place and company to company. Meanwhile, there was an extended debate about the comparative merits of direct current and alternating current as the means of supplying electrical power. This was not resolved until well into the 20th century.

Lighting offered the first commercial use for electricity, but it proved an insufficient foundation for an industry. What accelerated the growth of electric- ity generation was its use for traction power, such as electric trams for urban transport and the underground railway systems in London and Paris. These were the kinds of projects that stimulated the construction of large power stations at the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century.

From here the industry spread rapidly, particularly with the use of electric motors in commerce and industry. The piecemeal development of the supply industry eventually became a problem and nationalization and standardization became common during the first half of the 20th century. Ironically, the first of these, nationalization, would be reversed in many countries during the last part of the same century. By that time electricity had become indispensable.

Although its origins are in the 19th century, few would dispute the argument that the growth of the electricity industry was a 20th-century phenomenon. There is little doubt, too, that by the end of the 21st century it will have become the world’s most important source of energy. It is already starting to move into transportation with electric vehicles so that most types of energy needed can now be supplied electrically. It is worth remembering, however, that most of the key elements necessary for electricity generation, transmission, and distribution were developed during the 19th century.

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