Many electricians are not aware of the origin story behind their profession and are missing out on the historical influences that shaped their essential field. This brings us to the following questions, who were the first electricians? How was the electrical industry shaped? What is the history of electricians?
The history of electricians is difficult to pinpoint and arises from a variety of different historical figures. Efforts to understand, replicate, and control electricity began in the 1700s. Originally electricity was studied in nature, however, many scientists saw its potential and sought to bring it to use in daily life. For nearly a decade and a half, strenuous research was conducted. The research and development progressed quickly and was competitive. Some of the most prominent names of contributors are discussed below.
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) is one of the most well-known researchers and is considered a forefather of electricity. It was Benjamin Franklin that proved that lightning and electricity were one and the same. Another contributor, Italian physicist Luigi Galvani (1737-1798), is credited for the discoveries that led to the invention of the voltaic pile. His successor, yet another Italian physicist by the name of Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta (1745-1827), invented the electric battery. Fun fact - The electrical unit "volt" is named for Volta! Englishman Henry Cavendish (1731-1810) is alleged to have designed the experiments that German physicist Georg Simon Ohm (1789-1854) later went on to use the discover Ohm's Law, which states that resistance equals the ratio of the potential difference to current - an important and still relevant model to this day. Finally, we arrive at American Thomas A. Edison (1847-1931) the famed inventor of the electric light bulb and many other electrical products as well as his competition, Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), a who discovered rotating magnetic fields, invented the use of alternating currents, and refined several of Thomas A. Edison's products. Last but not least, we have Thomas Doolittle, a Connecticut mill worker who devised a way to make hard-drawn copper wire strong enough for use by the telegraphy and electrical industries in 1876, effectively replacing the use of iron wire. Copper wire is something still in use to this day by electricians and Thomas Doolittle deserves all the credit!
So when did being an electrician become a profession? Other than lighting streets and occasional homes, electricians were originally primarily needed to safely and intelligently build and display the work of inventors such as Edison, Westinghouse, and more. It was in 1881 that Lucien Gaulard of France and John Gibbs of England arranged the first successful alternating-current electrical demonstration in London. The first exposition demonstration occurred in 1889 at the Paris Exposition. Next, came the Chicago Fair that brought electrical demonstrations, lighting, and electricians to a whole other level.
Thomas Edison's General Electric Company received an invitation to bid the Chicago fair, his offer to provide grand scale lighting and demonstrations came in at $1.8 million. Keep in mind that this $1.8 million number occurred back in 1893 and the number is roughly projected to equal $52 million in today's day and age. Wow! The architects heading up the Chicago fair were insulted and denied the bid. Edison came back in at a significantly lower $554,000. Tesla swooped in with an offer of $399,000 for the installation and use of his AC polyphase system and won the Chicago Fair bid. This is extremely notable for a variety of reasons. First, the bidding process established business norms for electrical contractors that are still used today. Electrical contractors provide an educated bid for a project, often receiving the option to revise the bid to fit the client's needs just as Edison and Tesla did in their competition to win the Chicago Fair. The second notable historical change that this interaction offered stemmed from Edison's loss and Tesla's win. Since Edison was both a contractor and a vendor, Tesla approached him in an attempt to purchase bulbs and equipment for the project. Edison was displeased about his loss and refused to work with Tesla. This forced Tesla to search for alternative solutions. Instead of using the GE bulb, Tesla made his own more efficient double-stopper bulb that ultimately operated more efficiently and spurred further development of the electrical industry.
The fair was a huge success. It is estimated that the electricians at the Chicago fair installed nearly 100,000 bulbs (almost 1/9 of all lightbulbs within the United States at the time) with alternating current and 5,000 more arc lights. People began to learn more about electricity and electricians became highly sought after. Annual expositions around the United States and the globe continued, even resulting in an electricity themed Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1901. The profession grew greatly, and more and more electricians were trained and employed.
Not only does the history of electricians have an interesting background, but it also marks the foundation of an industry that changed the world. Today, people and organizations rely on electricians for their skills, knowledge, and services. Access to safe electricity is sometimes even used to measure quality of life. Life as we know it would cease to exist without electricians. All in all, as an electrician you should take pride in your work. Many people worked very hard to develop the devices and installation techniques that you use today. Your work on projects effectively makes the world a higher functioning place and your skillsets are highly technical. You should be proud to follow in the history of the first electricians and continue to improve on their work.
When was Electricity first studied?
Electricity is naturally occurring and as a result has been studied and referred to for centuries. Before Ben Franklin's kite experiment brought it to the forefront of the scientific community's curiosity people had been attempting to uncover its mysteries for some time. It is thought that around 600 BCE the Thales of Greece discovered that when resin or amber is rubbed with silk, it creates a static electric charge. This is thought to be one of the first studies that directly centers around what we have come to know as electricity.
Why is it Even Called "Electricity?"
The term "electricity" was derived from Englishman William Gilbert's 1600 CE word "electricus" (meaning like amber as amber was used to observe electricity through its friction and was known as Elektron"). Some say that William Gilbert was the first to actually discover electricity - though this is hotly debated. It was in 1646 that Sir Thomas Browne from adopted the term "electricus" into "electricity."
The Feud - Edison and Tesla
Beyond the petty disagreement over the electrical bid for the famed Chicago Fair and the light bulbs that were involved, Edison and Tesla seemed to have an ongoing feud that made the electrical industry a very dramatic place. While Edison, did earn other bids for the Chicago fair project and was seen at the forefront of his industry, he viewed Nikola Tesla as a threat to his name and his career. The history between the two is deep and can be seen as spiteful. Tesla worked as an employee of Edison after he immigrated to the United States. Tesla had originally approached Edison about his Alternating Current idea, but Edison was not interested. Tesla ended up leaving Edison to pursue his AC patent. As the demand and application for alternating current electrical grew, Edison felt threatened. He produced bad press for Tesla and sought to discredit the AC method altogether. Edison focused his efforts on AC's potential to be dangerous - producing slander, conducting violent and grotesque demonstrations of AC's power, and more. Alas, his efforts were futile. AC remained at the forefront of the industry and the feud between the two burned on.
Spark Museum of Electrical Invention
If you are ever in Washington State, it might be worth it to go visit the Spark Museum of Electrical Invention in Bellingham. It has a wide array of old electrical inventions and gear on display to showcase more of the history of electricians and has activities for kids to safely teach them about electricity - maybe even influencing a future sparky!
Interested as a Career as an Electrician?
Are you considering a career as an electrician? Visit the Join Our Team page of our website to learn more about the Prime team and take the next step in finding out if there are any job openings near you.