Center For Integrating Research and Learning

Arrow1880 - 1889


The drama of the decade (as far as electricity is concerned) was the face-off between two inventors, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, and their respective means of generating and distributing power. While Edison had won the race to “invent” the incandescent light bulb in the 1870s, he and his direct current (DC) system wound up the losers in the 1880s “War of Currents,” as the dispute between the inventors is known. Despite his forceful personality, entrepreneurial expertise and nasty smear campaign, Edison could not trump the superiority of alternating current (AC).

Hydroelectric Power Station

Edison had helped ensure the success of his light bulb by also providing the DC infrastructure to power it. In 1882, he opened the world’s first commercial power plant in New York City. The first hydroelectric power station opened a few weeks later in Wisconsin, producing enough DC juice to run two paper mills. But DC had its shortcomings: It was difficult to transmit over longer distances, involved cumbersome wiring, and was inefficient and sometimes dangerous.

In 1881 Tesla, a young man from what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire conceived of a solution, inspired by a Goethe poem: an induction motor that used a rotating magnetic field to create alternating current. American electrician William Stanley developed the first AC system five years later, including the first transformer, which could increase or decrease voltage at various points along an AC line, making long-distance transmission possible. The following year Tesla, who had by then immigrated to the US, filed for patents for his own AC system. His ideas attracted the notice of entrepreneur and engineer George Westinghouse, who bought the rights to his patent. Despite fierce propaganda from the Edison camp, AC ultimately prevailed. The first AC hydroelectric power plant was established in Oregon in 1889, and by the mid 1890s AC’s dominance was assured by the success of a lighting display at the Chicago World’s Fair and the first AC power plant in Niagara Falls.

Stanley Transformer

During this period many scientists were studying the work of the legendary James Clerk Maxwell. One of them was German physicist Heinrich Hertz, who wanted to see if he could conjure the electromagnetic waves that Maxwell had theorized two decades earlier. To do this Hertz devised an oscillating circuit which (if Maxwell’s theories were correct) would generate electromagnetic waves. Hertz also created a metal loop with a small gap in it – a receiver designed to detect the waves transmitted from the oscillator. When the loop was brought near the oscillator, sparks from the current jumped across the gap in the loop, proving that electric waves sent into space could be detected. Hertz’s experiments also showed that, like light waves, these electromagnetic waves could be reflected and refracted, and that they traveled at the same speed as light, but with a longer wavelength. (Hertz also observed during these experiments that when light shines on a metal surface, electrons are emitted – the photoelectric effect.)

So Hertz was the first to broadcast and receive radio waves, though he did not label them as such, nor did he foresee their incredible practical potential. Others would, however, soon shape Hertz’s discoveries into the wireless telegraph and radio. Eventually the same principles led to television and radar. Hertz’s achievements are invoked every time we reference the unit of measurement for the frequency of radio waves, the hertz.

1880 - 1889


The first commercial installation of American inventor Thomas Edison's electric lighting system occurs, successfully providing light to the steamship Columbia.


German physicist Emil Warburg discovers that ferromagnetic materials exhibit a hysteresis effect, a lag in the magnetic induction of a material following a change in the magnetizing field.


In France, physicists and brothers Pierre and Paul-Jacques Curie experimentally demonstrate the generation of electricity in certain crystals subjected to mechanical stress, a phenomenon that quickly came to be known as piezoelectricity.


Nikola Tesla, conceives of utilizing alternating currents to produce a rotating magnetic field.


German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz gives a lecture in London in which he argues that electricity is divided into elementary particles similar to atoms.


The first public electric railway, built by Siemens Halske near Berlin, opens. Seven years later the first electric trolley makes its debut in Virginia. In 1890, the first electric underground train begins service in London.


The International Electrical Congress meets for the first time in Paris where the group approves the definitions and cgs system suggested by the British Association and also introduces two new units called the coulomb and the farad.


The first hydroelectric power station is founded in Appleton, Wisconsin.


French engineer Léon Charles Thévenin publishes a paper that includes the theory of electric circuits that bears his name, though it was actually developed many years earlier by Hermann von Helmholtz. According to Thévenin's theorem, any combination of voltage sources and resistors featuring two terminals can be replaced with a single voltage source and a single series resistor.


A pair of English mathematicians, Oliver Heaviside and Horace Lamb, discover that as the electromagnetic frequency along a solid conductor increases, the current tends to flow near the surface of the conductor, a phenomenon referred to as the skin effect.


While experimenting with one of his incandescent light bulbs, Thomas Edison finds that electricity could be detected flowing through the vacuum from the lighted filament to a metallic plate placed inside of the bulb. Though known as the Edison effect, Edison did not further investigate the phenomenon, which would later become the basis of the vacuum tubes widely utilized in the radio and television industries for many years.


English physicist John Poynting introduces his theorem related to the conservation of energy for an electromagnetic field.


Johann Balmer, a Swiss mathematician, derives an empirical formula that provides the wavelengths of the lines of the hydrogen spectrum, which are known as the Balmer Series. Several decades later Niels Bohr would successfully explain why Balmer’s formula holds true with his model of the hydrogen atom.


American electrician William Stanley develops the first alternating current (AC) electric system and introduces the transformer.


German physicist Heinrich Hertz builds an apparatus for generating and detecting the electromagnetic waves predicted by the work of James Clerk Maxwell, becoming the first person to transmit and receive what later were called radio waves. During his experiments with electromagnetism, Hertz discovers the photoelectric effect.


Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish chemist, publishes a paper that includes a refined form of his theory that electrolytes dissociate into charged particles (ions) even in the absence of an electrical current, which he initially developed in 1883 as part of his doctoral thesis.


Nikola Tesla demonstrates a practical alternating current (AC) motor in the United States, which later becomes commercially available through his association with the Westinghouse Electric Company.


The first AC hydroelectric power plant is established in Oregon City, Oregon.

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