When we flip a light switch or plug in an appliance today, we take electricity for granted. But in the early days of electrical infrastructure, working with electricity was extremely dangerous. Early electricians risked electrocution daily while installing bare copper wires and dangerous knife switches that we now regard as archaic.

In this article, I will take you back to the dawn of the electrical age and shed light on the hazardous working conditions faced by the pioneering electrical workers who lit up our cities under the constant threat of being shocked or killed by the very power they were working to harness.

The Dangers of Early Electrical Systems

Bare Copper Wires

Early electrical systems consisted of bare copper wires run through homes and buildings with no insulation. Electricians had to handle these naked high voltage wires directly, exposing themselves to the risk of electrocution. Any slip up could mean injury or death.

Insulated wires were not introduced until the 1880s, but were expensive and took decades to gain widespread adoption. Even homes wired as late as the 1920s often had bare copper wires run through the walls.

Knife Switches

Early electricians had to manually connect circuits using knife switches - blades that slid between metal contacts to complete a circuit. These switches required working on live wires while exposed to uncovered terminals.

A slipped knife blade could cause arcs, sparks, and electrocution. Since knife switches were mounted openly on the wall, anyone could access them, which also posed risks. The development of enclosed panel switches finally made circuit connections safer.

Lack of Safety Standards

In the late 1800s, electricity was a new technology, with no safety standards established for the installation or use of electrical equipment. Electricians worked on live wires without any of the safeguards and insulated tools we rely on today. It was common practice to learn as you go, often with fatal results.

Many lost their lives before insulated pliers, safety regulations, and proper training became widely available later in the 20th century. Homeowners were also at risk of being shocked from their own electrical systems.

Grueling Working Conditions for Early Electricians

Installing Wiring in Homes and Businesses

Bringing electricity into homes and businesses required electricians to perform backbreaking manual work to install wiring throughout the building's infrastructure. They had to pull heavy copper wires wound on cable reels through walls and ceilings, climbing through cramped spaces such as attics and crawlspaces.

Work was done by hand since power tools had not been invented yet. Electricians strained and sweated to install wiring throughout entire buildings, handling live wires the entire time. Accidental contact could prove fatal.

Climbing Utility Poles

Early electricians also had to climb tall utility poles to string electrical lines across cities while wearing leather belts and spurs. They scaled 30-40 foot poles carrying heavy equipment and faced the risk of electrocution from the high voltage lines.

Falling from the poles was also a danger that could result in serious injury or death. Linemen had to work carefully atop the poles while handling bare wires in close proximity.

No Personal Protective Equipment

Early electricians had no concept of personal protective equipment. They worked on live wires with their bare hands, no rubber gloves or insulating mats. Homemade leather protective gear and primitive safety measures provided minimal protection from accidental electrocution.

Insulated tools, rubber gloves, safety goggles, and hard hats were invented decades later to better safeguard electricians from workplace hazards as the electrical trade evolved.

High Voltage Dangers

Lethal Shock Risk

When working with early electrical infrastructure, electricians faced the looming danger of lethal electric shock from accidentally touching exposed conductors. A wrong move could instantly result in severe injury or death by electrocution.

Early systems used high voltage current as high as 110V in homes, more than enough to kill. Electrocution was a leading cause of fatalities for early electricians and homeowners alike. Safety precautions were learns through tragic losses of life.

Electrical Fires and Explosions

Faulty early electrical work often led to electrical fires and explosions as copper wires shorted out against each other or combusted from overload. Entire buildings would erupt in flames due to electrical failures.

Arc flashes resulting from short circuits could also burn electricians severely. With no circuit breakers or fuses, electrical fires were catastrophic. Some cities even banned electrical wiring for decades due to public safety concerns.

Lack of Grounding

Early electrical systems lacked proper grounding. This meant incomplete circuits allowed current to flow through the ground and into people who came into contact with appliances and wires, delivering severe shocks.

Proper grounding was eventually mandated to prevent these dangerous side-effects that constantly threatened lives in electrified homes and workplaces.

The Legacy of Early Electricians

While early electricians faced hazardous working conditions, their efforts lit up entire cities and laid the foundation of modern civilization as we know it.

Although they worked under primitive conditions, often paying the ultimate price, these pioneers of light brought us out of the dark ages and into the age of electricity. The hazards they faced paved the way for the safety standards and practices we follow today.

Early electricians risked their lives at work every day so that future generations could have access to the convenience and wonder of electric power that we take for granted. We owe them a debt of gratitude for persevering through constant threats of electrocution to develop the electricity that powers the world.