How would your life be different without electric lighting?

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When was the last time you lived without electric lights? Maybe a thunderstorm, hurricane, or blizzard caused a power outage in your neighborhood. Many of us feel so uncomfortable without electricity that we keep gasoline-powered generators on hand to minimize the effects of such an unexpected loss of power.  Nevertheless, just 150 years ago, most of the world lived their normal lives without electricity and the dependable light that it supplies. One hundred years before that, and “normal” life was almost what it had been for perhaps 5000 years – only fire (torch, candle, etc.) to light the night.

Although electricity generated excitement, and although electrical companies worked hard to gain a domestic market for the power, its use spread slowly, suggesting consumer resistance linked to cost, availability, and alternatives. Electricity first entered homes as batteries for fire and burglar alarms; and potential customers learned that electric lights would neither asphyxiated people nor set the house afire with an exposed flame.

By the early twentieth century, electricity played an ever-increasing and complex role in everyday life in western society as consumers gradually became more dependent on it as a source of energy for light, heat, and power. On the eve of the Second World War nearly 80 percent of the residential dwellings in the United States had electricity as their primary form of illumination. However, more than 20 percent continued to rely on either kerosene or gasoline lighting and almost one percent still used gas lighting. The gap between those using electric lighting in urban and rural America was much wider. According to the 1940 U.S. Census, almost all residents of urban communities and metropolitan districts had electric lighting in their homes and rural-nonfarm dwellings hovered around the national average. However, nearly two-thirds of rural farm dwellings continued to rely on kerosene or gasoline illumination. Indeed, the adoption of new technology is seldom a linear and complete process, but more and more people were accustomed to seeing and using electricity by midcentury. However, In the first decade of the twentieth century, depending on locale, construction, availability, and personal finances, a wide-variety of lighting sources might be found in use, including: candles; kerosene; gasoline; coal or water gas; incandescent coal or water gas with mantles; electric arc light; incandescent electric light; and acetylene gas lighting.

Today, the developed world, and to some degree the developing world, is dependent on electricity for many daily conveniences such as heating homes; brewing morning beverages; refrigerating foodstuffs; powering computers; illuminating residences, offices, recreational spaces, and streets; and operating the traffic lights people sometimes ignore. This dependency is recognized when electric service is disrupted as skyscrapers become dysfunctional, cities come to a near standstill, and urban centers sometimes erupt, resulting in incidents of civil unrest and looting that are broadcast on the evening news. When power is lost people also worry about defrosting refrigerators and maintaining light, heat, air-conditioning, and water service in their homes and businesses.

This unit explores the connections between the invention, commercialization, and adoption of electric lighting as well as alternative forms of artificial illumination in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Teachers are encouraged to use the following notes as they prepare for this unit and consult the additional resources listed at the end of this document for more information.

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Supporting Questions

  • RURAL ELECTRIFICATION IN OHIO features three films commissioned by Rural Electrification Administration for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and created by legendary filmmakers Pare Lorentz and Joris Ivens. The landmark 1940 documentary Power and the Land tells the story of the Parkinson family, farmers in rural Ohio who electrified their farm with the help of a REA loan. Before electrification, work was done in old-fashioned, manual-labor intensive ways—water was carried by hand from the outdoor pump, and carts and plows were driven by horses. The documentary helped raise significant awareness about the lack of electricity in rural America. This program also features two related 1941 shorts films about the Parkinsons: Bip Goes To Town and Worst of Farm Disasters.

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  • STEM Interdisciplinary, from TryEngineering.org

    Engineering Foundation Lessons – four lessons: Basic Alternating Current Motors, Basic Direct Current Generators and Motors, Basic Electricity and Magnetism, Basic Electric Transformers

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  • STEM Interdisciplinary, from TryEngineering.org

    Series and Parallel Circuits

    Note: This lesson plan is designed for classroom use only, with supervision by a teacher familiar with electrical and electronic concepts.

    Demonstrate and discuss simple circuits and the differences between parallel and serial circuit design and functions.

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  • The Thomas Edison Center at Menlo Park
  • Lewis Latimer House Museum
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