Thomas Edison was one of history’s greatest inventors. He is credited with inventing the phonograph, motion picture camera, and of course, the incandescent light bulb. But one of Edison’s cleverest inventions is not as well known: the three-wire electrical distribution system. This innovative wiring method allowed Edison to significantly lower energy costs for his customers without them having to change anything in their homes.

How Edison’s Early DC Power Worked

In the early 1880s, Edison opened the first electric power station that could provide electricity directly to homes and businesses. His Pearl Street Station in New York City used direct current (DC) to deliver electricity.

With DC power, electricity flows in one direction from the power source to the load. Edison used insulated copper wires to distribute the DC power, connecting each customer’s premises directly back to the Pearl Street generator.

This meant that electricity had to flow through the entire length of wire from the generator to the customer’s home before returning through another wire. The longer the wire, the more resistance in the wire, and more power was lost.

Major Drawbacks of Edison's Early DC Power Distribution

Edison’s early DC system had two major drawbacks:

Edison wanted to find a cost-effective way to deliver electricity to more customers across greater distances.

Edison’s Three-Wire Distribution System

In the late 1880s, Edison came up with an ingenious solution to overcome the limitations of DC power distribution.

His innovation was to run three wires instead of two from the power station:

This meant that 220 volts could now be delivered from the generator to the customer premises. Here is how it worked:

Providing 220 Volts with Three Wires

Wire Position Voltage
Outer wire 1 +110 volts
Neutral center wire 0 volts
Outer wire 2 -110 volts

By using three wires, Edison could deliver 220 volts while keeping the insulation requirements low. This allowed him to transmit more power efficiently across longer distances.

Customers Could Still Use Existing 110 Volt Devices

Here’s the clever part. Customers with 110 volt lamps and appliances didn’t need to change anything!

Each customer was simply connected across one outer wire and the neutral. So they could still use their existing 110 volt devices perfectly safely.

But from the generator perspective, 220 volts was delivered to provide more power to cover greater distances. This was possible without customers having to modify or change out their loads and wiring.

Benefits of Edison’s Three-Wire Distribution

Edison’s three-wire distribution system provided major benefits:

This innovative system allowed Edison to supply electricity to many more customers across much larger areas. It was Edison’s wise wiring solution that really enabled electrification and brought electricity into every home and business.

Edison’s Legacy on Lowering Energy Bills

Thanks to Edison’s clever three-wire distribution system, electricity could finally be delivered efficiently and economically to the masses. His innovative wiring approach allowed substantial losses to be avoided, lowering energy costs significantly.

Without having to modify a thing, customers simply plugged into Edison’s 220 volt network and could use their 110 volt devices just as before. Yet behind the scenes, the new three-wire system slashed waste and allowed electricity to be provided across entire cities.

Over 130 years later, we still benefit from Edison’s brilliant wiring technique each and every day. By thinking outside the box, Edison found an innovative way to reduce energy costs dramatically while keeping existing customer devices and wiring intact. It is a strategy that continues to pay dividends on our energy bills over a century later.