The answer to when light bulbs become common in American homes very much depends on where you lived. If you lived in a big urban area then it is quite likely that you would have electric lighting in your home by 1920. If you lived on a farm in rural Georgia it might not have been until 1953 that you could flip a switch to light up your evenings. Overall the majority of American homes (by which we mean more than 50%) were electrified by 1929.
Discovery of Electric Generation
Scientists have long been interested in electricity. We all know the story of Benjamin Franklin flying his kite with the key attached in an electric storm back in 1752. But it was not until 1820 that significant advances in the generation of electricity were made.
In 1820 Hans Christian Ørsted discovered that the flow of electricity, from a chemical battery through a wire, caused a magnetic field. André-Marie Ampère showed that this magnetic field was circular. And in 1931 Michael Faraday discovered that when a magnet moved through this circular fields it produced an electric current.
Faraday took a copper disk and rotated it between the poles of a powerful magnet. The outer edge of the disk passed through more magnetic lines than the center. By connecting wires to the center and edge of the disk Faraday could create a continuous current. He had made an electric generator.
Generators based on Faraday´s ideas were improved upon by other scientists to the point where, in the 1870s, dynamos (electric generators), powered by coal-fired steam engines, could be used to provide large-scale, reliable, direct current.
Meanwhile, Sir Humphry Davy had built the first electric arc lamp back in 1809. Arc lamps have two electrodes with a small distance between them. When a high enough voltage is applied to the electrodes it breaks down the resistance of the gas in the bulb, a current flows causing a bright spark to appear. The light generated is very bright making it unsuitable for homes. But perfect for street lighting. By the mid-1870s the streets in many large cities around the world were lit by these electric arc lamps.
Invention of the Light Bulb
Before the invention of the light bulb, gas and kerosene were used to light streets and homes. Gas companies ran pipes to individual homes to supply gas for heating, lighting and cooking, much as they still do today. While kerosene had the benefit of being able to be sold and transported in small containers.
In 1879 Thomas Edison patented his incandescent bulb. This early version of Edison´s bulbs had a filament made out of carbonized cotton thread that could last for 14.5 hours. His team experimented on different filaments, finally finding one made out of bamboo that gave Edison´s lamps a lifetime of up to 1,200 hours.
Edison was not the only one working on the light bulb. Joseph Swann received a patent in the UK. And William Sawyer and Albon Man had received a U.S. patent for the incandescent lamp. In fact, both these patents were before Edison‘s. At the time this lead to some talk about whether Edison‘s patent infringed on these earlier ones.
The point became moot when the companies using these patents merged. The Thomson-Houston Electric Company, who were making incandescent bulbs under the Sawyer-Man patent, merged with Edison’s U.S. lighting company to form General Electric. Similarly Edison´s UK company merged with the one created by Joseph Swann to create Ediswan.
With his team working to improve the lifetime and quality of his bulbs, Edison opened the first commercial power utility. Namely the Pearl Street Station, in lower Manhattan in 1882. Not happy with just supplying customer, Edison also invented the first electricity meter to keep track of their power usage.
Electric Companies and The Big Cities
In answering when did light bulbs become common we next consider what was going on in the country’s major cities.
Edison opened the Western Edison Light Company in Chicago in 1882. Two years before building his power plant in New York Edison.
Edison had hired an Englishman, Samual Insull, to be the vice-president of his company General Electric. Insull was very ambitious. He was not happy about being only vice-president. Therefor he moved to Chicago to take control of Edison‘s interests there.
With Insul as president the company grew. Thereafter in 1907 it merged with other providers becoming the Commonwealth Edison Company. The company had exclusive rights supplying electricity in the city. By 1920 it had 500,000 customer and 6,000 employees. Its power plants consumed more than two million tons of coal annually, giving the company a revenue close to $40 million.
So,if you lived in New York or Chicago, electric lighting would have become common for you by the early 1920s.
Across the rest of the country access to electricity was much slower in coming. By 1910 less than 2 percent of the United States was electrified. Despite the electrification in the big cities, by 1920 just 35 percent of American homes had electricity. This percentage increased across the decade as more households in towns and cities began to receive electricity. Provided by privately owned companies or municipal utility companies. Subsequently by 1929 nearly 68 percent of homes were electrified.
In addition to lighting, other household electric devices were becoming available. Electric vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, radios and phonographs to name a few. However, the take up of larger items was slow. In fact, by 1930 only 8 percent of American homes had an electric refrigerator.
In conclusion, if you lived in an urban area, electric lighting would have become common for you in the late 1920s.
If however, you lived in the countryside, things took a little bit longer. In 1935 only 10 percent of people living in rural areas had access to electricity. This was mainly due to the cost of running cables to outlying properties. In the 1930s it cost roughly $2000 to install 1 mile of electric cable.
This disparity lead Franklin D. Roosevelt to create the Rural Electrification Act (REA) in 1936 as part of The New Deal. Under the act, rural communities formed electric cooperatives. Then they took out loans to pay for the cost of electrification. Paying the money back over thirty years.
So in rural communities light bulbs would not have been common until the 1940s. And it was not until 1953 that 90 percent of rural homes had access to electricity.
We hope this has helped you, and answered “when did light bulbs become common?”