Alternating Current and Electricity

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In today's culture, electricity is a vital part of functioning as a society. Simple tasks, such as waking up at a designated time or enjoying a piece of music, are accomplished currently via electronic means. One only needs to consider the consequences of a relatively short power outage – factories close down, phones and computers go dead, traffic slows to a crawl, food spoils in refrigerators – to accurately observe how power-dependent our society has become. However, electricity is a constantly developing technology, and the aspects one currently associates with electricity and electricity generation are nowhere close to the original features. In the past century and a half, electricity has steadily evolved from a scientific curiosity, to a luxury of the affluent, to a modern need. Along the way, it has been shaped by a variety of non-technological factors: economic, political, social, and environmental, to name a few. This paper will focus on such factors as business rivalries, government programs, human nature, and resource limits. The first non-technological factor to shape electricity was the business- and competition-fueled "War of Currents" of the late 19th century between alternating and direct current – AC and DC, respectively ("Electricity," 2006). During the initial years of electricity distribution, Thomas Edison's direct current was the standard for the United States, and Edison was not disposed to lose all his patent royalties. Direct current worked well for the incandescent lamps that were the principal load of the day. However, from his work with rotary magnetic fields, Nikola Tesla devised a system for generation, transmission, and use of AC power. He partnered with George Westinghouse to commercialize this system. This sparked a massive business rivalry between Edison's General Electric Company – backed by J.P. Morgan – and the Westinghouse Electric Corporation (Patterson, 2006). Thomas Edison went on to carry out a campaign to discourage the use of alternating current, demonstrating the danger in alternating current by electrocuting animals on stage and ultimately designing the first electric chair. However, in 1893, Westinghouse proposed to light the World's Fair with alternating current for half of what Edison was charging. The rampant success of alternating current lighting at the Fair dispelled doubts about the usefulness of the AC system. Meanwhile, Westinghouse lobbied for the rights to build a power plant at Niagara Falls, a plant that he claimed would not only be able to power nearby Buffalo, but the entire East Coast. On November 16, 1896, the first electrical power was sent from Niagara Falls to industries in Buffalo from the hydroelectric generators. These two events were the catalyst for AC to usurp DC for power generation, distribution, and utility. Since 1893, over eighty percent of appliances have run or are running on circuits powered by alternating current. Direct current has been practically phased out as a useful alternative to alternating current; DC is currently limited to low-voltage applications, such as those that require batteries. Human nature provides a second factor that has shaped electricity over the past century and a half. As creatures of convenience, we are constantly seeking ways to make our lives easier and less labor-intensive. Electricity has provided such a means to a life of comfort (Walsh, 1901). One can hardly argue that lighting dozens of kerosene streetlamps by hand is more efficient than flipping on a switch and sending city blocks into radiant incandescence (Park, 1893). Electricity has consistently raised the standard of living whenever it has been applied to a facet of daily lifestyles. Some critics of the benefits of electrical innovation, such as Ruth Schwartz Cowan in "Less Work For Mother," point to the added work created by reliance on electricity (Cowan, 1987). However, the fact remains that the standard of living has increased substantially with each...
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