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Before There Were Lights: A History of Electricity in the U.S.

For thousands of years, people all over the world have been fascinated by lightning. Some people must have wondered how to put that kind of power to practical use. But it wasn't until the 18th century that the path to the everyday use of electrical power began to take shape.

illustration of ben franklin flying kite
Ben Franklin proved that lightning was a form of electricity.

Maybe you have heard about the famous kite experiment by American Founding Father and inventor Benjamin Franklin. In 1752, to prove that lightning was electrical, he flew a kite during a thunderstorm.

He tied a metal key onto the string and, as he suspected it would, electricity from the storm clouds flowed down the string, which was wet, and he received an electrical shock. Franklin was extremely lucky not to have been seriously hurt during this experiment, but he was excited to have proved his idea.

Throughout the next hundred years, many inventors and scientists tried to find a way to use electrical power to make light. In 1879, the American inventor Thomas Edison was finally able to produce a reliable, long-lasting electric light bulb in his laboratory.

By the end of the 1880s, small electrical stations based on Edison's designs were in a number of U.S. cities. But each station was able to power only a few city blocks.

Although the majority of people living in larger towns and cities had electricity by 1930, only 10 percent of Americans who lived on farms and in rural areas had electric power. At this time, electric companies were all privately owned and run to make money. These companies argued that it would be too expensive to string miles of electric lines to farms. They also thought farmers were too poor to pay for electric service.

workers stringing electric lines
Workmen string lines to bring TVA electricity to Valley farmers. (Photo courtesy of the New Deal Network)

President Franklin D. Roosevelt believed strongly that America's farming areas should have the same access to electricity as cities did. In 1935 the Rural Electric Administration was created to bring electricity to rural areas like the Tennessee Valley.

By 1939 the percentage of rural homes with electricity had risen to 25 percent. The Tennessee Valley Authority also set up the Electric Home and Farm Authority to help farmers buy electric appliances like stoves and washing machines. Farm families of that time found that these helpful electric appliances made their lives much easier.

Today, Americans' standard of living has risen as nearly everyone has electric power at home, school and at work. Read more here about life in the Valley before electricity and how TVA power changed things for the better.