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The Electrification of America

Jeffrey Syken

When George Westinghouse introduced AC (Alternating Current) power generation in March 1886, it was a transformative event. Able to travel great distances (unlike Edison’s Direct Current), its promise was to light and power the entire nation. However, by the time of the Great Depression that great promise was yet to be kept in full.

By the early 1930s, most of urban America was indeed enjoying the promise of AC power to light homes, power consumer products and drive industrial machinery, but rural America was still, literally, in the dark. Power companies found electrification of rural areas to be difficult and not cost effective, so people continued to live by gas light and peddle-power, just as they did fifty years prior to Westinghouse’s great breakthrough.

To the Federal Government, the situation was untenable so in 1935 the Department of Agriculture formed the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) with a mandate to bring the 20th Century to rural America. In just sixteen years, rural America went from 90% un-electrified to 90% electrified (by 1951). Great “make-work” projects of the New Deal like the Tennessee Valley Authority were instrumental in bringing about this change in so short a time. The benefits of rural electrification to the national economy and, most importantly, the people of rural America defy measurement by any yardstick.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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