How Edison's Direct Current System Secretly Powered Rural America
The Rise of Edison's DC Power
In the late 19th century, Thomas Edison developed the first practical incandescent light bulb and sought to build an electrical power distribution system to provide electricity for lighting. Edison was a proponent of direct current (DC) power, where electricity flows in one direction from the generating plant to the customer.
Edison setup the first DC power plant and distribution system in New York City in 1882, marking the beginning of the electrical age. However, DC systems had a major limitation - electricity could only be transmitted over short distances, usually within 1 mile from the generating plant. Beyond that, the electrical resistance in the wires caused too much energy loss.
This limitation of DC systems meant that electricity could only be supplied to densely populated cities where the customer base was concentrated near the central generating station. Rural areas, with scattered homes spread over large distances, could not be served by Edison's DC power.
The Rise of Tesla and Westinghouse's AC Power
In the mid-1880s, George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla began developing an alternating current (AC) power system. In an AC system, the electricity alternates direction 60 times per second.
AC had a major advantage over DC - it could be transmitted over much greater distances with minimal energy loss. This meant AC electricity could be supplied over hundreds of miles to reach rural communities.
Westinghouse commercialized Tesla's AC inventions and promoted the technology widely. By 1893, Westinghouse underbid Edison for the contract to light the Chicago World's Fair, demonstrating AC's economic superiority for central station power.
How Rural America Secretly Got DC Power
Despite AC's advantages for long distance transmission, many rural communities were located within a few miles of existing DC generating plants that powered major cities.
Rather than discard these DC systems completely and build new AC infrastructure, many small independent power producers quietly connected rural areas to the existing urban DC networks.
For example, Kansas City was one of the early DC power adopters, with a central station serving the city starting in 1883. Within a few years, the Missouri & Kansas Electric Light Company stealthily extended DC service to surrounding towns like Independence and Lee's Summit by tapping into Kansas City's system.
Similarly, Omaha, Nebraska's DC network was extended piecemeal by small power producers to electrify nearby rural towns. The same pattern unfolded near early DC plants in Cincinnati, Columbus, Chicago, Boston, and other urban centers.
So while AC systems lit up the vast American countryside, many rural towns in the shadow of cities secretly gained electricity through Edison's scorned DC networks. DC persisted as an unexpected rural solution into the 1900s before AC conclusively took over.
The Best of Both Worlds
The rural DC networks exemplified the best of both worlds - AC's long-range transmission from central plants to the city outskirts, combined with DC's localized distribution once in town.
Rather than a rivalry, AC and DC ultimately coexisted as complementary technologies. AC excelled at transmitting power over distance, while DC was more efficient for urban distribution over shorter distances. Once AC brought electricity from afar, DC finished the job.
So despite Edison's fervent attacks on AC power as dangerous, rural America ironically relied on both his DC and Westinghouse's AC systems to electrify the countryside. The flexibility of AC and DC enabled the rapid spread of electricity nation-wide.
The End of the DC Era
By the 1910s, AC power conclusively dominated the electrical grid. The economies of scale for large AC generators and transmitters drove down costs. AC motors also became capable of replacing DC in factories.
Utilities converted existing DC distribution systems to AC to standardize equipment. For rural areas already on DC, this often meant scrapping isolated DC networks and starting fresh with integrated AC systems.
AC proved its superiority for universal service, from the power plant to the customer. But DC played a hidden role in first bringing electricity to rural America's doorstep.