As I studied the history of electricity I wondered more and more, why do 1/3rd of the countries in the world, including the United States, use around 110/120 volts in their homes, and the other 2/3rd use around 220/230 volts?
I think I have found the answers: it all has to do with how Edison started working on electric lights, Edison’s three wire system, the date of the invention of the tungsten lamp, and, finally a single United States City. No, not New York City, I’m talking about… Chicago.
Table Of Contents
Edison’s 3-wire System
I would like to start on September 8th, 1878. That was when 31-year-old Thomas Edison was brought by a friend to see an inventor named William Wallace who, with a collaborator named Moses Farmer had made a special DC generator (or dynamo) that could light 8 very bright lamps at a time called “arc-lamps”.
According to a newspaper, “Edison was enraptured”, but decided that the lamps were too bright. Edison returned to his “invention factory” and declared, he could electrify “a thousand – aye, ten thousand [lights]– from one machine,” and, “With 15 or 20 of these dynamo-electric machines recently perfected by Mr. Wallace, I can light the entire lower part of New York City”.
However, Edison quickly learned that the Wallace-Farmer generators were not efficient enough to be useful, so he bought every generator he could find and his team built the best generator that they could from the best features of all of the available generators, which they did by July of 1879.
As the Wallace-Farmer generator created 110 volts, Edison’s new generator, called long-legged Mary-Ann because of the long “legs” of the electromagnets, was also designed to be at 110 volts.
However, even with an efficient generator, Edison still took years to electrify anything on an industrial scale: and it took almost 4 years from when Edison declared to the newspapers, “I have it now!” that he finally could mass produce an incandescent bulb and electrified business from a central electrical station.
After turning on the power at his first power station, Edison noticed that customers on popular lines would use more lamps and therefore have more resistance so that the “popular” lines would produce less light than the less popular ones.
His solution was to use two DC generators in series with a “neutral” wire between them. In this way, the current from one generator would flow out of the positive electrode to the negative electrode and the current from the other generator would do the same, so, that if the system is in balance, no current will run in the center “neutral” wire, but you can still connect between the “live” wire and the “neutral” wire to make a circuit for your lamp at 110 volts.
If the system is out of balance, however, current will run in the central wire and Edison could measure that with a current meter and then rearrange the connections (with a switch) to bring the system back into balance so that all lamps will be basically at the same brightness. In addition, by using this system, you can electrify with three wires what used to take 4, and, as the center neutral wire had little to no current in it, it could be made with a very thin wire. In this way, Edison reduced the total amount of copper by over 60%!
Finally, if you wanted more power, for a motor say, you could just connect to the two live wires and get 220 volts instead of 110 volts, which is exactly what they did.
The Tungsten Wire Changes Things (Not in the US)
The only metal filament that Edison could make work in a bulb was made of platinum, and that was too expensive to mass produce, so he used bamboo or carbonized cotton filaments even though they would burn out at 220 volts.
Edison’s competitors used similar filaments, and, most companies copied his 110 volt for bulbs, 220 volts for motors standard, even for AC systems.
Then, in 1904, inventors named Sándor Just and Franjo Hanaman filed a patent for a lightbulb that used the metal tungsten which not only lasted far longer but could be also be used at far higher temperatures and voltages. Soon, several companies in Europe paid their customers to change their lightbulbs to the new metal type that would work at such high voltages.
This was still profitable because the transformers used a lot less wire to step down to 220 V rather than 110 V. Also, with the higher voltage (and lower current) it was easier to transmit the electricity from the transformer which required less transformers and allowed for thinner wires.
In that way, Europe lighting was at 220 V and all the countries that were supplied by Europeans in Africa and Asia followed suit.
However, in America, the need for incandescent lamps were so high that the new bulbs couldn’t keep up, let alone replace all the old lamps. For example, in the United States in 1909 (5 years after the invention of the tungsten bulb), 14 million metal lamps were manufactured but the demand was so high that 53 million new carbon lamps that could only work up to 110 volts were sold as well.
Ten years later, the US had ramped up production of metal lamps by a whopping 1,500% which was finally enough to cover all the lighting needs, but by this time there were too many electrical systems set up to change all those transformers to 220 volts.
Therefore, America and all the countries that American companies serviced, stuck with 110 volts.
You might ask why America had so many more incandescent lights than Europe or anywhere else in the world, and that has to do with the city of Chicago, which in the mid to late 1800s was the fastest growing city in the entire world!
Why Chicago Changed American Electricity
When Chicago was designed as a city, in 1840, it was a pretty small town with a population of around 4,500. Then, in 1847, a canal was built to connect the Great Lakes to the Mississippi river through Chicago, which caused the town to blossom to be a hub of transportation.
Two years later, gold was discovered in California, and a rush of people went from the populated East Coast to try to strike it rich and Chicago became the last spot of “civilization” to stock up for the trip, and meat drying and meat packing industries flourished.
All of this meant that by 1870, the population had increased to almost 300,000 souls with no end in sight. With the sudden population growth, the houses were built fast and cheap and without thought of hygiene or safety.
That was when a cow kicked over a lamp (or a cooking fire got out of control), and the entire downtown burned to the ground in what was called the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
Suddenly, the architects of Chicago had a blank space to build, and build tall as space was still at a premium as the city was hemmed in by the lake, the river and the railyards.
However, brick buildings are heavy and need ridiculously thick walls which waste space, and cast-iron buildings weaken in fire which was not popular in Chicago for obvious reasons.
This problem was solved by an architect named William Jenny.
The story, which might be made up, was that he came home one night and his wife was reading a book which she put on the top of a birdcage to welcome her husband home, and William Jenny came up with an ingenious idea of using a metal skeleton to hold up the building and then have the walls be lighter as they are not load bearing.
This not only allowed people to build slightly higher, but to be very tall, and in 1884, Jenny designed what is considered the world’s first skyscraper with the 10-story tall “Home Insurance Building” and by 1893, Chicago had 12 skyscrapers between 16 and 20 stories tall, and New York had only 4 skyscrapers, despite a far larger population.
I mention 1893 in particular, because that is when the city of Chicago (after vigorous debate and many bribes) hosted the Columbian World’s Exhibition. It is hard to overemphasize the effect of this fair on Americans in every walk of life.
For one, the fair had over 27 million visitors, most of whom were Americans when the population of America was just 63 million! After the success of the fair, many industrialists decided that it was city pride (as well as product placement) to build skyscrapers in their hometown, which was particularly powerful in New York City, where rich New Yorkers were not going to let a hog butchering city get all the accolades.
By 1899, the United States had a whopping 62 skyscrapers and the rest of the world combined had only four: one in Japan, one in the Netherlands, one in Australia and one in the UK.
All of these skyscrapers were electrified, often with generators in the basement, as gas lamps could not safely be piped to great heights. The fair was also influential because it was lit by AC electricity by George Westinghouse and, with so many electric lights, was the first exposition that was successfully kept open at night. At the time a poet declared that just the electricity alone, “would be well worthy of the attention of the world…
The spectacle is more resplendent than the capitals of Europe ever saw.” Soon, everyone wanted electric lights especially businesses. Although this fair is often referred to as the end of the war of the currents between AC and DC, the “war” had ended the year previously and the general public was completely uncaring about AC vs. DC (or 3-phase vs. 2-phase vs. 1-phase) so the fair was more of a win for electric lights rather than a win of AC over DC.
How Electricity Evolved Over Time
Over the years, different electrical companies often tried to sneak up the voltage to save a little bit on wires for transformers so that some countries have shifted from 110 to 120 volts or 127 volts, or 220 volts to 230 volts or 240 volts (the one exemption is Japan, which is the only country to actually *lower* the voltage to 100 volts, out of concern about fire, the lowest voltage in the world!).
To add to the confusion, in 1891, a German company demonstrated 3-phase AC distribution for the first time, where you have three “live” wires for long distance transmission that are 120 degrees apart where the lamps were connected in three branches to a single phase with a return line called the neutral line which is connected to all three phases or the ground.
By the early 1920s, almost all electrical distributions used 3-phase AC, where each house got only one “live” wire, one neutral wire and, usually, a separate ground wire. However, with the advent of high-power devices, like clothing dryers, there was a push to electrify houses with two “live” phases, so that the dryer could be powered with two phases and have more power.
Some places, the live wires are 120 degrees apart so that the total voltage from two wires is 1.7 times the individual live wire, and some places the live wires are 180 degrees apart so that the total voltage is 2 times the individual live wire.
All of this leads to a dizzying array of power in your home depending on the country.
But, all of this begs more questions: why do some places use 50 Hz and some 60 Hz and how was 3-phase invented and why is it so amazing (and amazingly confusing)? Well, all has to do with a truly underrated inventor named Mikhail Dolivo-Dobrowsky.
1 “Inventions Big Triumph” The Sun September 10, 1878 p. 1
2 “Edison’s Newest Marvel” The Sun September 16, 1878 p. 1
3 “Edison’s Newest Marvel” The Sun September 16, 1878 p. 1
4 Hawkins, N Hawkins Electrical Guide (1917) p. 711
5 According to Table 2-1 Kane, R and Sell, S Revolution in Lamps (2020) p. 37
6 According to Table 2-1 Kane, R and Sell, S Revolution in Lamps (2020) p. 37
7 “Demographics of Chicago” Wikipedia.com
8 Bluestone, D Constructing Chicago (1991) p. 74
9 List of early skyscrapers: Wikipedia
10 Barrett, J Electricity at the Columbian Exposition (1894) p.2
11 Barrett, J Electricity at the Columbian Exposition (1894) p.2