How the Little-Known Practice of Wrapping Home Wiring in Newspaper Revolutionized 19th Century Electrical Safety

The 19th century was a time of rapid advancement in electrical technology. As electric lighting, telephones, and appliances were introduced into homes, safety concerns around electricity began to emerge. Many deadly fires and electrocutions occurred due to faulty and dangerous wiring installations. Out of these tragic circumstances, an innovative safety practice was born - wrapping home wiring in newspaper.

The Dangers of Early Electrical Wiring

In the late 1800s, electricity was still a mysterious force to be tamed. The wiring systems used to light homes were crude and hazardous by today's standards. I remember walking into houses wired with bare copper wires running across walls and ceilings. These wires would fray and spark. If they came into contact with flammable materials like wood beams or cloth wallpaper, fires would often ensue.

Even more dangerous was gas lighting, which produced toxic fumes and had open flames. By the 1890s, over 200 deaths per year in New York City alone were attributed to defective gas lines. Electric lighting was clearly safer, but the infrastructure was simply not ready for residential use. Accidental electrocutions from handling live wires claimed many lives. It was an exciting but dangerous time to have electricity in the home.

The Inspiration of Insulation

To address the risks of electrocution and fire, electrical engineers began experimenting with different kinds of wire insulation. Early rubber and cloth insulations were not very effective, and wax paper coverings were difficult to apply. Then, according to legend, in the 1870s, an electrician in Boston had a brilliant idea - why not use newspaper as an insulator?

Newspaper was cheap, abundant, and surprisingly effective at insulating wires. By wrapping copper wires in paper, they were far less likely to short circuit if they touched each other or conductive surfaces. This solution caught on quickly across the northeastern United States. For the first time, electrical contractors and homeowners could insulate wires themselves using just newspaper and string.

Saving Lives with Paper

Insulating wires in newspaper likely saved many lives and homes in the late 1800s. The number of electrical fires decreased dramatically in cities where the practice was adopted. Buildings wired using the newspaper method rarely experienced short circuits and electrical malfunctions.

By preventing accidental electrocutions and reducing fire risks, newspaper wire insulation allowed electricity to be welcomed into homes and businesses. It served as an intermediate solution until rubber and woven fabric insulations were perfected and standardized in the early 20th century. While it may seem like a quirky historical footnote today, using newspaper to wrap wires was an ingenious life-saving innovation in its time.

The Legacy of Newspaper Wiring

Wrapping wires in newspaper has not been practiced for over a century, but it remains a significant milestone in electrical safety. While the practice was eventually made obsolete by modern insulation materials, it paved the way for them. The newspaper method likely inspired electrical engineers to continue experimenting with different insulators.

This little-known technique is an important part of America's electrification story. While we take safe wiring for granted today, it was the bold thinking of 19th century inventors that allowed electricity to be Safely harnessed in the first place. Whenever I see old newspaper-wrapped wires in antique buildings, I am reminded of the forward-thinking spirit that powered electrical innovation through the years. The legacy of newspaper wiring is one of creativity, pragmatism, and lifesaving ingenuity.