Major Innovations in the History of Electricity

We tend not to think much of it when we flip a switch and the lights come on, but just 150 years ago, such an event was seen as a modern miracle. The electricity we often take for granted today is the product of centuries of observation, experimentation and innovation, which turned inventors like Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla into household names.

When the state of electrical science was primitive compared to what we know now, these trailblazers and others risked their fortunes and even their lives in their attempts to harness the power of electricity and use it to make the modern world possible. What follows are just a few of the most significant innovations in the history of electricity.

Circa 600 B.C.

The Greek mathematician and philosopher Thales of Miletus discovered static electricity by rubbing small pieces of amber on animal fur, generating a static electric charge capable of attracting small feathers.


German physicist Ewald Georg von Kleist and Dutch scientist Pieter van Musschenbroek independently invented versions of the Leyden jar. A Leyden jar is a vessel capable of storing tens of thousands of volts of electricity, and it became a fixture in important early electrical experiments.


Benjamin Franklin conducted his famous “kite experiment,” in which he attracted lightning to a metal key flying among storm clouds on a kite. The experiment helped inform Franklin’s design for the lightning rod, which helped protect tall structures from destructive lightning strikes.


The first electric battery was invented by Italian scientist Alessandro Volta, proving that electricity can be safely transmitted along wires and providing a source of stable electricity that powered the next generation of electrical experimentation.


British scientist Michael Faraday invented the first electric motor. 


The telegraph was invented by Samuel Morse, a professional portrait artist and late-in-life inventor. The telegraph made it possible to quickly send messages across long distances using electrical wire.


The modern incandescent light bulb, powered by direct current (DC), was developed by inventor Thomas Edison. Edison’s bulbs were long lasting and powered at low voltage, representing a leap in electric lighting technology that made indoor electric lighting widely attainable for the first time.

Around the same time, the first public electric lighting system was installed in Cleveland, Ohio. These lights, called arc lamps, operated via alternating current (AC). This marked the beginning of a phase in electrical history known as “the war of the currents” — a scientific and industrial battle to determine whether DC or AC electricity would power the future.


Edison’s first electrical distribution system went live in Manhattan, delivering DC electricity to buildings and homes throughout the city. 


In partnership with George Westinghouse, an entrepreneur and pioneer of AC electricity, Serbian-American engineer Nikola Tesla unveiled a comprehensive “polyphase” AC generation system.


Tesla patented the Tesla Coil, which made the wireless transmission of AC electricity possible.


AC electricity wins a major victory in “the war of the currents” by winning the contract to power the World’s Fair in Chicago. This high-profile demonstration of electrical power shocked the world.


Westinghouse’s AC technology was used to power a hydroelectric generator at Niagara Falls, which transmitted electricity more than 20 miles to Buffalo, New York. This victory for AC is considered to mark the end of the war of the currents, paving the way for AC dominance. 


The first hybrid electric car was unveiled at the Paris Exposition of 1900. Called the Lohner-Porsche Elektromobil, it was the combined effort of Viennese vehicle designer Jacob Lohner and Austrian engineer Ferdinand Porsche.


The first electric vacuum cleaner was invented by James Murray Spangler, an American janitor.


Electric air conditioning was invented by Willis Haviland Carrier.


The first electric refrigerator was invented by American inventor Fred W. Wolf.


The first coal powered electrical plant began operation in the United States.


The first night game of baseball was played in Cincinnati, thanks to the installation of a state-of-the-art lighting system at Crosley Field.


The first silicon photovoltaic cell was developed by Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson of Bell Labs. While this was not the first solar panel ever, it was the breakthrough that made solar power practical for powering homes, buildings and common electrical appliances.


Researchers at MIT used telephone lines to communicate between computers for the first time, planting the seed for the modern internet.


The first wind farm began operation in the United States, propelling renewable electricity into the future.

These innovations represent only a portion of the breakthroughs that led to the safe, modern, ubiquitous electrical system we rely on today. And the tradition of electrical innovation continues around the world, including right here at Direct Energy. 

One of our latest innovations is Direct Your Energy, a suite of tools that helps our customers track their energy usage in a whole new way to make more informed decisions about how to use electricity. Direct Your Energy lets you see exactly where you’re using electricity, breaking it down by appliance. You can view your electricity use over time, alongside other data like temperature and weather, which can influence your overall energy costs. You can even compare your energy use to that of similar households and set up alerts to inform you if you suddenly start using more energy than usual.

Start exploring our Direct Your Energy tools today, so you can start saving energy tomorrow!


Josh Crank is a freelance writer and content marketer with a background in legal journalism, travel writing, and marketing for numerous commercial industries. He's found his perfect fit at Direct Energy in writing about home maintenance and repairs, energy efficiency, and smart home technology. Josh lives with his wife, toddler son and endlessly howling beagle-basset hound mix in New Orleans.