How the Forgotten Knob-and-Tube Wiring Method Solved the Rural Electrification Crisis

The Rural Electrification Crisis in the Early 1900s

In the early 1900s, most rural areas in the United States did not have access to electricity. This created many hardships for rural residents who relied on kerosene lamps and candles for light. Farmers struggled to modernize agricultural practices without electric power. The lack of electricity severely limited economic development and quality of life in rural communities.

Providing electricity to sparsely populated rural areas was not profitable for electric companies. The high costs of installing electric lines over long distances made rural electrification an unappealing investment. Private electric companies focused their efforts on wiring cities and towns where they could get the most customers per mile of line.

The rural electrification crisis was a major inequality between urban and rural America in the early 20th century. Access to electricity was seen as a basic necessity, yet millions of rural Americans lived without this essential service. There was a growing movement to find solutions to bring electricity to rural areas.

The Invention of Knob-and-Tube Wiring

In the 1890s, an inexpensive electrical wiring method called knob-and-tube was invented. This early form of wiring used separate rubber or cloth-insulated wires run through and supported by ceramic knobs and tubes attached to framing members.

The knob-and-tube method offered important advantages that made it well-suited for wiring rural homes and buildings:

By utilizing knob-and-tube wiring, existing rural buildings could be electrified quickly, safely, and inexpensively. It was a simple but clever wiring method perfect for rural applications.

The REA Brings Electricity to Rural America

In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) as part of the New Deal. The REA provided low-cost government loans to fund rural electrification cooperatives. These cooperatives, owned by members they served, installed electric distribution systems in un-electrified areas.

The REA cooperatives overwhelmingly used knob-and-tube wiring to electrify rural homes and farms. The inexpensive installation allowed the cooperatives to quickly wire hundreds of thousands of rural structures. By using existing knob-and-tube methods rather than rewiring buildings, they could bring electricity to rural America for a fraction of the cost.

The statistics showing the rapid expansion of rural electrification under the REA are staggering:

The REA’s rural electrification program was one of the most successful New Deal agencies. It completely transformed rural life in just two decades. The REA cooperatives wired millions of rural structures for power and established the electrical infrastructure still used today.

This enormous achievement would not have been possible without the REA’s widespread adoption of knob-and-tube wiring. The forgotten knob-and-tube method provided an ingenious, low-cost way to quickly bring electricity to rural America.

The Decline of Knob-and-Tube Wiring

After peaking in the 1930s and 1940s, knob-and-tube wiring started to decline in the 1950s due to several factors:

Today, knob-and-tube wiring still exists in some older, rural homes and buildings but has otherwise disappeared from standard electrical practice. Its moment in the spotlight as the wiring method that energized rural America ended as superior modern electrical systems made it obsolete.

The Ingenious Knob-and-Tube Legacy

While obsolete for today’s electricity needs, knob-and-tube wiring was the vital technology that enabled rural electrification in the early 20th century. Its simple, inexpensive, and effective approach made it the perfect solution for bringing power to rural America.

The REA’s knob-and-tube wiring electrification initiative significantly improved the lives of rural Americans and reduced the economic gap between urban and rural areas. Electricity allowed farms to modernize agricultural production and rural communities to develop new industries.

Access to electricity truly energized rural America. When we flip on our light switches today, we can thank the forgotten knob-and-tube wiring methods that first brought the glow of electric lights to rural homes and communities.