August 20, 2003

The Electricity Revolution

A very nice little snippet on a past industrial revolution--but what's it doing in a "neurotechnology" weblog? :-)

Brain Waves: Neurotechnology on Corante: After almost a century of research into the nature electricity, the 1870s would be the decade when the cluster of innovations that made the new electricity infrastructure emerged -- alternators, dynamos, generators, transformers, switch gear, and power distribution systems.

As broad implementation plans were being planned in the 1870s, smaller scale electrification projects began to slowly revolutionize industry after industry.  Low cost, high quality steel was one of the first products cheap electricity made possible.  Radical process innovations such as Bessemer and Siemens steel processes used inexpensive electricity to manufacture low cost steel on a mass scale. 

Steel and electricity changed society, reshaping how humans lived in close urban quarters.  Until the 1880s few buildings were ever built more than five stories tall, but with the emergence of abundant and strong steel, skyscrapers were born.  In 1883 the first building to employ steel skeleton construction was Home Insurance Building in Chicago, reaching an amazing 25 stories. The subsequent erection in Chicago of a number of similar buildings made it the center of the early skyscraper architecture. By 1913, New York began to edge out Chicago in the race for dominance with the construction of the Woolworth Building that reached an incredible 60 stories. 

It wasn't just steel frame construction that made skyscrapers possible. The "electric lift", invented in 1886, was also needed to replace hydraulic lifts that could not go higher than five stories.   At the same time, the telephone supported the skyscraper economy by making it possible for people to communicate among the new high rises.  From 1890 to 1900, the number of telephones in use surged in the United States from 200,000 to over 1.5 million, most of which were deployed in newly constructed skyscrapers.

As cities built upwards, they also extended downwards.  Taking advantage of the growing electrical network, urban electric railroads and underground railroads emerged.  From 1887 to 1900, London built a massive urban underground electric railway system whose highly engineered cars were built from inexpensive steel and moved through concrete "tubes."  Across the Atlantic, the United States also leveraged the developing electricity infrastructure.  Over a fifteen-year period from 1890 to 1905, city transit lines powered by electricity grew from 15 percent to over 90 percent. 

With the invention of the electric light bulb in 1878 and further refinements including the carbon filament lamp, electric power stations found entirely new markets in public and domestic household illumination, replacing toxic and inefficient the gas lanterns that had to be constantly refilled. The diffusion of electric lighting across cities and towns for use in stadiums, factories, offices, and along walkways forever changed public and private lives. 

Posted by DeLong at August 20, 2003 12:29 PM | TrackBack

Comments

bessemer process did not use electricity! to nit pick

Posted by: big al on August 20, 2003 02:03 PM

bessemer process did not use electricity! to nit pick

Posted by: big al on August 20, 2003 02:06 PM

Neither did the Siemens process, known in the USA as the open hearth process. Electric steel furnaces are notoriously expensive to operate, and have only ever been used to produce alloys such as stainless steel, which cannot be made using other technologies.

Sorta invalidates the article, don't it.

Posted by: Chuck Nolan on August 20, 2003 02:22 PM

"Electric steel furnaces are notoriously expensive to operate, and have only ever been used to produce alloys such as stainless steel, which cannot be made using other technologies."

Not true. There are approximately 110 electric arc furnace steelmaking facilities in the U.S. Only about 20% of them produce mainly stainless steel. The other 80% produce mainly carbon steel. (I THINK electric arc furnaces are used for the majority of steel tonnage...both carbon steel and stainless steel, produced in the U.S. But I'm not sure about that.)

The main aspect of electric arc furnaces is not that they produce only stainless steel, but that they produce steel from scrap (as opposed to the Bessemer process, which produces steel from pig iron).

But you're correct that neither the Bessemer or Siemens process use electricity. (You probably know this, but for others: The Bessemer process used air...and later oxygen. The Siemens process used natural gas or oil.)

Posted by: Mark Bahner on August 21, 2003 04:43 PM
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