Philadelphia: Electrified
Introduction and Thesis
There may not be a single day that somebody goes about their life without the influence of electricity. Whether it is the computer screen in front of you or the invisible magnetic field constantly passing through, it is everywhere. Human kind has reached a point in life where such a technology is so vast that it is almost taken for granted. Harnessing electrical power may arguably be the greatest discovery in history next to the wheel and fire. Our technology has risen exponentially since the regular use of electricity. Although known for thousands of years, back to the Egyptians, it wasn’t until the 17 and 1800’s that the idea of capturing, creating and/or storing electricity really came into realization and development.
Philadelphia is one of the first cities in the United States to produce and distribute electricity. Electricity was created and fed to select locations in the late 1880’s during the time that gas was used to create light. There were three main companies in competition with each other for Philadelphia: Edison Electric – founded in 1880, Westinghouse Electric – founded in 1886 and Philadelphia Electric Company (PECO) – founded in 1881. Although all companies still exist as large corporations, PECO would later be the sole distributor of electricity in Philadelphia.
Electricity did not come easy to Philadelphia; on top of competing companies there were protests against the transition of Philadelphia to one of the only cities at that time not using gas to illuminate its streets, residencies and workplaces, eliminating human power by means of transportation, and ultimately taking the route to AC power.

Before Electricity
Before people even thought about electricity as a means of energy, they used other sources. Natural gas was a large source of energy in the 1800’s. Gas was used to illuminate anything that people wanted to see during the night. At the time, it was difficult to transport gas efficiently and safely. Gas is very combustible with meters and pipes having exploded causing deaths. Gas was almost exclusively used for street lamps because of the safety issue. The introduction of electricity would cause gas use to be shifted to heating and cooking after a safer means of transportation would be developed.

First Attempts at Illumination
Philadelphia first saw electricity in very small amounts. There were gatherings here and there to showcase what it was and what it could do. Not many cared and only a few even decided to use this energy source. The first attempt at using electricity to power lights was at the store of John Wanamaker at 13th and Market Streets. The electricity was generated by means of a steam engine within the building itself. Around the same time an owner of a saloon at 9th and Locust Streets lit his bar room with electric lamps. Few buildings were using electricity that year, but by around 1881 the word was spreading and people started to realize that electrically powered lamps were the way to go.

Electricity Grows in the City
In 1880 Thomas Edison saw this developing need for electricity and founded Edison Electric. This company would centrally produce electricity and distribute it where needed.
Edison Electric took on a project that got Philadelphia going for the transition from gas to electric lighting. The received permission from city councils to light Chestnut street from the Delaware to the Schuylkill Rivers at no charge for one year. There would be 47 total lights and they would be mounted to existing poles from gas lights that were already on the street. Chestnut Street would first see these lights illuminate the grounds on December 3, 1881. The office buildings of the Record and the Public Ledger along Chestnut Streets were lit soon after, with the Post Office following not too far behind them. These buildings were all supplied electricity from Edison Electric.
Many other projects by other smaller companies for illuminating the streets at night took place soon after Edison’s. One such project was lighting the streets, as well as buildings who wanted it, between Vine and Bainbridge Streets from the Delaware to Schuylkill River by Maxim Electric Light and Power Company.
Another big addition to the city that branched from illumination was transportation. Large steam turbines turned generators that produced electricity that was distributed to light bulbs. Reversing a generator would yield an electric motor. This could be applied to transportation. Along with New York City, Philadelphia is the first to take advantage of this successfully. An electric motor railway would be built on Ridge Avenue for a stretch a little less than a mile long to Laurel Hill. This railway opened for business in October 1885. Electricity is supplied to the train through the tracks which runs the motor and lights of the cars from the railways plant station which generates the power.

Protest and Setbacks
Of course some new problems may come with any new technology. And with new problems ever seen before, some people may come to believe that the new technology will never work and should not be used. At some points people protest the creation and use of electricity in Philadelphia
Like any other machine, generators have the potential to fail. These are the first of their kind and may not have all of the “kinks” worked out of them. And of course many people do not understand or do not care about this. Electric companies received a number of complaints if electricity failed to reach their lamps at night. These companies were always working towards a more reliable way of producing electricity, such as backup power and generators. Electricity was also stored in very large batteries in case of generator or turbine failure.
Electrical wires seemed to be a hassle for citizens of the city as well. Lamps in the streets were first supplied through overhanging wires. Buildings were connected to the wires supplying the lamps in the street. Insurance companies threatened to cancel policies to buildings with wires attached to them unless they were removed. The Committee of Electric Lighting had foreseen that insulated copper wires hanging above metal roofing material may eventually come in contact with the roof. This would result in the insulation wearing away and rainwater causing a short and possibly catching fire or something similar. It is than suggested that the electric companies run any and all wires underground to buildings. They would have to abide to this rule if they wanted to continue to supply electricity.
Electricity can also be dangerous to humans if handled wrong. Some fatalities even occurred within the city from humans improperly handling or accidentally touching bare wires or batteries. This is of course the biggest concern in any city. Not only can electricity directly harm a human, but it can cause fires in buildings. If a short were to occur a spark may ignite a flammable material. One such fire claimed the lives of 12, injured 18 and left one person missing in Philadelphia. On October 13th, 1881, there was a fire in a building, Landenberger’s Mill, which had no fire escapes. It was described as one of the most horrible fires in the cities history. The fire was said to have been caused by a disarrangement of wires feeding the electric lights in the building.

The Second Step
This event, and many similar, would lead to another transition in Philadelphia’s electrification. The problem behind Edison’s electricity, thought by George Westinghouse ad Nikola Tesla of Westinghouse Electric, is that the supply is direct current. Direct current was dangerous. It was difficult to change voltages and could not travel across a long distance. This meant that a high voltage would have to be used across an entire city with a high current to get it there. Tesla developed alternating current which on required a low current to distribute the same voltage across a longer distance.
Edison would ultimately lose the battle between AC ad DC electricity. Edison Electric would merge with its AC-based rival Thomson-Houston Company to form General Electric.

The Final Stretch
Philadelphia would now have to convert everything it had to be compatible with AC electricity. Light bulbs and electric motors would all have to be changed. Started in 1926, this changeover would not be completed until 1935 and would cost around $8,000,000.
Throughout this entire change, the city saw an emergence of another electric company that, even though having already existed during Philadelphia’s DC years, would take over the supply of AC and aid of conversion. Philadelphia Electric Company (PECO) was slowly expanding. PECO slowly bought and built generation stations inside the city. The company even helped the city with the AC transition by not charging to change out some DC motors and lamps.
Now that electricity did not have to be supplied from directly within the city, PECO would purchase and build distribution plants outside of Philadelphia. PECO purchased Kensington Electric Company in 1901 and Delaware County Electric Company in 1918 which had just built a generating station in Chester. Having this and aiming to build more, PECO aimed to make electricity affordable to the middle-class with the start of its “installment plan.”

Closing Discussion
History has shown us that new technologies are always being developed to make every day life easier. The road to an easier life with a new technology can be a little bumpy, and some fatalities may even occur. But this has never stopped development and industry. The creation and use has opened up a huge door to new jobs, new markets and new processes.
Being one of the two main cities at the time along with New York City, Philadelphia was one of the first to become truly electrified. This is how three main electric companies came to be. Their founders saw that gas was not the best way to illuminate the night. They started to create electricity for the city to be used. It was even taken a step farther and electricity was divided into two types: direct and alternating currents, with AC being the final way that Philadelphia, and the world, become electrified.





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