Before the turn of the 20th century, scientists such as Franklin, Volta, Faraday, Tesla, and Edison blazed a trail in electrical theory with their magnificent discoveries of the powers of electricity. Their pioneering work and revolutionary breakthroughs set the stage for inventors, engineers, and electrical workers of the 20th century to harness the power of electricity for the masses and make what was once unthinkable, practical and commonplace. One of the most important steps in this evolutionary process was the gradual disappearance of the mysteries surrounding electricity.

The period of 1901-1909 was marked by many notable electrical firsts — a few of which included: the first trans-Atlantic wireless radio signal; the first arc generator; the first main-line locomotive powered by a single-phase alternating current; the first true radio broadcast; the first single-phase alternating current motor for variable-speed operations; and the first continuous-filament tungsten lamp.

As reported in an historical perspective piece written by EC&M editors in 1951, the carbon incandescent, or “hot hairpin in a bulb,” began to replace gaslights in 1901. Cities found a new brightness in the arc lamp. Mills and factories began to use electric motors instead of steam. But progress still needed a push. Architects were slow to write electrical systems into their plans. Commercial builders begrudged room for generators — even in basements. How could the electrical trade gain respect?

It was the electrical men of this era (mostly journeymen electricians) that pushed electrical systems into the mainstream. They helped Americans overcome their fears of electricity and understand the tremendous potential that lay beneath the surface of its magical properties. “They learned as they worked. They fought the selling battles along with the technical ones. They struggled with plugs that wouldn't fit receptacles, parts that didn't match, and all the time new developments were coming fast on top of one another.”

NECA is Born

The National Electrical Contractors' Association was formed in Buffalo, New York, on July 17, 1901. Charles L. Eidlitz, of New York City, was elected president, and the membership totaled 31. The work of the first year largely involved building the foundation of the association and increasing membership. In 1901, the association's official paper, The National Electrical Contractor (which would leave the association and change names five more times before it became EC&M in 1947) began production — the first issue featuring 24 pages.

Dangers of Gas and Electricity

A study, conducted by The National Electrical Contractor between June 1901 and June 1902 in Massachusetts, indicates there were 79 deaths and 106 nonfatal accidents that resulted from using gas as an illuminant. Of those 79 deaths, 14 resulted from electrical accidents. The majority of deaths from electricity occurred when workers intentionally touched live circuits, while the gas-related deaths were typically due to carelessness in shutting off the supply. Based on this information, the editors conclude gas is more dangerous to the consumer than electricity, while electricity is more dangerous to employees of the generating company than to its patrons. In closing, they find, “it is comforting to note that although there were 16 suicides from gas, no case is reported of attempted suicide by electricity.”

Always Blame the Engineer

Who's to blame for nonuniform electrical installations these days? In a 1902 article, “Engineers Were Never Like This,” The National Electrical Contractor staff blames neither the manufacturer nor the contractor, but the electrical engineer or expert. In fact, the editors say engineers “lie awake nights trying to evolve some fancy or unheard of name for the simplest form of appliance.” For example, a snap switch is called a “rotating circuit breaker,” an outlet box is a “fixture supporting orifice,” and a fuse is a “circuit interrupting device.” If engineer Smith mentions blue wire in his specifications, Jones will have nothing but red; while another will permit white wire only on any part of the work. Each one considers the other specification foolish and incompetent. In a final appeal, editors plea to the readers: “Get together, get together engineers.”

Never Trust the Architect

In 1902, the following short anecdote demonstrates that humor is alive and well in the electrical industry trade press. After walking through a building inspection with an architect, an electrical contractor suggests the architect approve his plan to place the panelboard near the stair in the center of the corridor because “it would make all the circuits much shorter.” With considerable dignity the architect replies, “No, sir, you keep your panels at the end of the hall. I don't propose to have any short circuits in my building.” According to the editor, who writes under the alias “KILLYWHAT,” the contractor had a coughing spell, from which he has only just recovered.

Whose Job is it Anyway?

In the 1903 article, “More Trouble,” the editor reports one of the most important debates in the electrical contracting industry is the plumbers' and steam fitters' claim to conduit work. According to the author, writing under another clever alias, “AMPERE,” no one has ever informed the plumber or steam fitter that electrical knowledge is necessary to run conduits. “They have seen conduit in new buildings, and take it for granted that it is run in the same way as is gas or steam pipes. Switch control, panel board control, calculations of sizes to accommodate copper of suitable carrying capacity, all these intricacies have been lost sight of and the broad idea that it is pipe, is the only one that seems to appeal to them.” AMPERE goes on to suggest the easiest way to solve this problem would be to let a plumber or steam fitter take on a job without having electrical men to direct him. He doesn't dispute that a plumber or a steam fitter can cut and thread pipe as well as the average wireman, but this is only a small part of the job. “The laying out of the work, the dividing in circuits, the calculation as to sizes of conduits for length of run, switch control, loss, carrying capacity, etc., are the essential matters which must be thoroughly understood by the man doing the work.”

Organized Labor Deemed a Success

In a 1903 article, the editors take a stand on the organized labor debate. Although it has succeeded in a few instances in increasing nominal wages in specific industries, the editors question whether organized labor has benefited real wages. They cite the great coal strike and its results as a case in point. “The consumers of this country lost in the aggregate untold millions of dollars on account of that strike. There is not a householder in all the country whose fuel bills this winter have not been nearly doubled. The saving of weeks has gone into the coal bin. And for what? Merely that the men in certain industry may force their employers to pay them higher wages.” But will employers pay higher wages? According to the article, the answer is no. The editors believe employers will add a sufficient price to reimburse wages. As a result, consumers will end up paying several times over in increased fuel costs. “In order to secure the privilege of paying more for fuel in the future then ever before the consumers have paid a dear price during the last winter.”

The Dangers of Electricity

Taken from the Quarterly Fire Report of the National Board of Fire Underwriters in 1903 and 1904, the following examples demonstrate some unusual fires attributed to electrical systems. Interestingly enough, they also exhibit shades of our present-day Forensic Casebook and Code Violations columns.

  • The flash from an open link fuse in a stable ignited dust covering the cutout. The fire quickly spread to chopped feed below. Then, it moved up the shingles on the side of the wall to a loft. This fire would not have occurred if someone had used a standard cutout block enclosed in a cabinet, as specified in the National Electrical Code.

  • A blown fuse in a rosette set fire to paper festoons placed on the ceiling around the rosette. Though the fire caused $30 in damages, prompt discovery prevented what would otherwise have been a serious loss.

  • A wire, located above the canopy of a fixture, was placed directly in contact with the metal ceiling, causing a fire that resulted in a $15 loss.

  • A short circuit in a defective receptacle ignited the cheesecloth that trimmed a show window, costing $125.

  • A short circuit of pendant flexible cord at a key socket in a hosiery mill caused a break in the strands of the cord. The subsequent flash ignited lint that had accumulated on the conductors, resulting in $100,000 in damages.

  • Improper grounding of circuits caused 36 fires, 21 of which occurred on awnings, roofs, and gas pipes.

  • In one case, the cross section of wire was corroded by acid used in soldering, resulting in excessive heating. After igniting 3 ft of the wire's insulation, the fire spread to the woodwork. The wires were supported on porcelain knobs between joists.

  • A gas pipe followed the conductors for 4 in. The insulation of flexible tubing and wire in a damp basement broke down and leakage of current occurred over the pipe. At the point of contact, 6 in. from the earth, electrolysis took place, puncturing a nearby gas pipe and igniting the escaping gas. The fire was discovered in time to prevent serious loss. The leakage of current was not sufficient to melt the 6A fuse protecting the circuit.

  • In the Iroquois Theater Disaster, Chicago, Dec. 30, 1903, a spark from an arc lamp used for floodlighting the stage ignited the edge of the main drapery, and the fire spread to the highly flammable scenery.

  • Five fires were caused by short circuits in flexible cord. In most cases, defective commercial cord was used with thin rubber insulation and wrapped around pipes and nails.

Early Switchboard and Panelboard Design

Taking a detailed look at the installation of an isolated electric lighting and power plant in a 1904 article, Arthur Frantzen reports the most interesting and challenging component of this type of work is switchboard and panelboard design and construction (see photo on page 30). Because the engineer is continually confronted with problems in this area, the article suggests “modern requirements compel distributing centers or panelboards to be designed so that all wiring and fuses are encased in noncombustible enclosures.” According to the author, this need encouraged the development of several ingenious arrangements for accommodating the various conditions found in many types of buildings.

Ingenious Use of Electricity

In 1904, George Kirkegaard, a model maker from New York City, was contracted to develop several parts for an electrical apparatus — without knowing what purpose it would later be used for. He later learned his unique invention was exhibited at a summer resort. The device consisted of a large board divided into small squares. Various items (such as a pipe or knife) were fastened at random to some of the squares. Each of the table's 200 squares rested on a hinge that was controlled by a magnet operated by a push button in a battery circuit. The 200 buttons were located on a table in front of the large board with all the different articles exhibited. For the price of a coin, each player could push one button, not knowing to which square it was connected. If the item sat on the square that fell, the player kept the prize. According to the author, “All would have been right if fraud had not been introduced; but the operator had a private connection, and at will could let his victim win or lose.”

When the Telegraph Wire Breaks

A correspondent sent in the following method of locating breaks in telegraph wires in 1905, as reported by the science editor of London Tid-Bits. The author poses a simple question: “Have you ever wondered how when a wire is broken or damaged between two distant cities the operator, sitting in his office, can tell exactly where the accident has occurred?” The answer is simple. It requires force to send electricity through a wire. The editor goes on to explain: “The longer the wire is, the greater is the force required. This force is measured, but instead of calling it pounds, as in the measuring of the pressure in a boiler, electricians call the units of electrical force ohms.” The article concludes with a problem-solving exercise. Suppose a wire between two offices is 150 miles long, and that on a stormy night it gets broken. The telegraphist knows that when the wire was sound it took just 2100 ohms to send a current through, or 14 ohms per mile. He now finds that he can send a current with only 700 ohms. He divides 700 by 14 and finds that the break in the wire is 50 miles from his end.

Early Electrical Forensics

In the 1905 article, “An Unusual Accident Case,” the editors present the case of a tragic electrical accident that occurred in Niagara Falls in 1903. This narrative bears an uncanny resemblance to EC&M's popular Forensic Casebook column today.

The accident happened in the home of Loren T. Witmer. “The house wiring was installed in 1895, and was up to the standard of that date. Mains entered the 2nd floor through an old-style Edison rotary snap switch with porcelain barrel and leaf copper contacts. The cellar light was controlled by a single-pole snap switch on the 1st floor, and had a telltale light just above the switch to indicate when it was burning. The cellar floor was concrete, and the light consisted of a brass key socket connected to a fusible rosette by about 10 ft of silk flexible cord, which was usually suspended by a hook placed in the ceiling for the purpose.”

On the night in question, Witmer was awakened by his wife, who heard a loud buzzing noise and saw the cellar indicator light flash. He walked (with bare feet) to the second floor and turned off the entrance switch. Using matches to light their path, Witmer and his wife proceeded to the cellar. As he reached the bottom of the stairs, he picked up a lamp cord lying on the floor. When Witmer's wife reached the head of the stairs, she heard a groan and a fall — followed by a flash of light. She found her husband lying lifeless at the foot of the stairs — with the thumb and forefinger of one hand deeply burned and part of the cord's insulation burned. Unfortunately, his injuries were too severe, and doctors failed to resuscitate him.

After Witmer's death, his widow brought suit for $25,000 against the lighting company. The case was tried in Supreme Court and sent to the jury, “charging the defendant that if the theory advanced by the plaintiff that high tension current was carried to the secondary directly from the arc wire, or by tree branches that the defendant was negligent in not providing a permanent ground connection on the secondary system. If on the other hand the theory advanced by the defendant that current was carried by the fire alarm wire from the arc wire, via cross arm, bolts, pole wire and telephone wires to the secondary, then they were not guilty of negligence and could not recover.” The jury returned a verdict of $6700 in favor of the plaintiff.

Modern Steam Laundry

Although electricity had been used as a lighting and power agent in steam laundries for several years, it was only recently adopted for heating in the early 1900s. Using the Guthman Steam Laundry in Atlanta as an example, the editors present an interesting profile of the facility's threefold use of electricity.

The specific electrical equipment found in this three-story steam laundry demonstrates early electrical innovations at their best. The basement contains the generating equipment, repair shop, and storerooms, while primary washing machines and centrifugals are located on the top floor. Two 200-hp water tube boilers, which supply steam at both low and high pressures, are located in the basement boiler room. An automatic engine drives a 55kW compound-wound 110V General Electric generator to supply light and power. Four large mangles, each driven by a 5-hp directly connected motor, are located on the first floor. Individual motor drives are also used on the shirt bosom ironers, body ironers, wristhand ironers, and moisture-applying machines. The primary washing machines on the third floor, as well as the centrifugals, are grouped and driven from two lines of shafting — each belted to a 15-hp motor. Aside from the machine drives, an electric elevator carries the work from the delivery wagons in the basement to the sorting room on the top floor.

In this piece, the editors describe the most interesting use of electricity in the hand-ironing department on the second floor. Here, there are thirty 6-lb and ten 3-lb electric GE flat irons. The article points out, “The method of installation is usually neat, and emphasizes the convenience and adaptability of the electric flat iron over the cumbersome gas heated iron.” As shown in the photo, there is a special goose-necked fixture fitted with both a receptacle for the connected plug of the flat iron and a socket for a four candlepower indicating lamp, both controlled by a 10A snap switch. This novel arrangement reveals which irons are productive and which are standing idle.

Plea for Metallic Conduit

In 1906, Fred G. Dustin reports on the electrical industry's initial movement from knob and tube wiring to conduit. “It is generally agreed throughout the country that the best method of installing low potential wires for light, heat, and power purposes is by means of the iron conduit system, or more broadly speaking, the approved metallic conduit system,” writes Dustin. With this system, the author explains the builder can plan the conduits simultaneously with the other piping instead of waiting until the gas fitter completes his work — thus saving two or three days on the job. Furthermore, after the building is finished, the wires are drawn in and all connections are made outside the walls. This makes the system accessible year-round. “Were it not for the fact that a mistaken notion of the cost of such a system had arisen when the price of such materials was high and skilled conduit men were few, we would have abandoned the knob and tube system long ago, with profit to ourselves and satisfaction to our customers.”

Redefining the Contractor's Role

In a 1907 article entitled “The Relation of Illuminating Engineering to the Electrical Contractor,” the electrical contractor profession is directly compared to the engineering contractor or builder. Although the electrical contracting business began with the mere stringing of a few wires for electric bells, the contractor has moved into the construction engineering arena, which involves more complicated problems, requires a high degree of technical knowledge, and involves dealing with large sums of money. According to the editors, “While illuminating engineering has been accepted as an individual profession by those directly concerned with the sale of illuminants and lighting apparatus, the illuminating engineer is still an unknown quantity to the average layman.” So when a consumer finds his lighting installation unsatisfactory, whom does he turn to for advice? Naturally, the electrical contractor. Although this article does not suggest electrical contractors should replace practical electrical and illuminating engineers, it does imply there is no reason why contractors cannot safely contract to remodel or troubleshoot these installations for increased revenue.

Lightning Protection Analysis

According to Ohio State Fire Marshal Creamer in a 1907 National Electrical Contractor article, thunderbolts are increasing in frequency and force. Although the number of thunderstorms reported in the Ohio Valley remains steady at about 30 days each summer, the loss of life and property from them has increased much more rapidly than the population or number of buildings. Why? According to the author, “The increase in destructiveness of this enemy from the heavens has been said to be the result of sun spots, of underdraining, of the electrical disturbance from earthquakes and of the removal of trees, which are nature's lightning rods.”

However, he admits this hypothesis is simply an assertion rather than an explanation. He goes on to report that “scientific persons in the four most powerful countries of Europe” have investigated the best method of lightning rod protection. Their findings reveal the lightning rods that run from moist earth, over the buildings and back down to moist earth — with points near chimneys and gables — will protect persons and property from any typical lightning strikes.

New Revenue Streams

In 1909, a large number of electrical contractors and dealers have found selling and installing electric motors (as well as renting and repairing them) an extremely profitable business. According to the editors, “it is a business that is very easily worked up, and the percentage of profit is considerably larger than what is usually enjoyed by electrical contractors. Best of all, it leads to an unusually large amount of wiring business that would otherwise not come to you.”

The U.S. Transmission Grid is Born

Now that the 110,000V transmission line of the Grand Rapids Power Company has been operating satisfactorily for six months, a 1909 article touts the practicality of this voltage for long distance electric transmission of power. The following brief summary characterizes the start of the U.S. transmission grid. Running between Grand Rapids and the Croton Dam, Mich., this transmission line is 50 mi long, is carried on triangular steel towers (which are approximately 53 ft in height and 43 ft 8 in. from the ground to the lowest cross arm), and is designed to give a 40-ft clearance between the line wire and ground. “Placed on large concrete anchors buried in the ground, the towers are spaced 528 ft apart on tangents. The anchors consist of 3 in. angle steel, 7 ft 10 in. long, encased in concrete. The line transmits 10,000kW, and the conductors consist of No. 2 stranded hard drawn copper wire with hemp center. No guard wire is used.”