Benjamin Franklin is known for his discovery of electricity. Born in 1706, he began studying electricity in the early 1750s. His observations, including his kite experiment, verified the nature of electricity. He knew that lightning was very powerful and dangerous. The famous 1752 kite experiment featured a pointed metal piece on the top of the kite and a metal key at the base end of the kite string. The string went through the key and attached to a Leyden jar. (A Leyden jar consists of two metal conductors separated by an insulator.) He held the string with a short section of dry silk as insulation from the lightning energy. He then flew the kite in a thunderstorm. He first noticed that some loose strands of the hemp string stood erect, avoiding one another. (Hemp is a perennial American plant used in rope making by the Indians.) He proceeded to touch the key with his knuckle and received a small electrical shock.

Between 1750 and 1850 there were many great discoveries in the principles of electricity and magnetism by Volta, Coulomb, Gauss, Henry, Faraday, and others. It was found that electric current produces a magnetic field and that a moving magnetic field produces electricity in a wire. This led to many inventions such as the battery (1800), generator (1831), electric motor (1831), telegraph (1837), and telephone (1876), plus many other intriguing inventions.

In 1879, Thomas Edison invented a more efficient lightbulb, similar to those in use today. In 1882, he placed into operation the historic Pearl Street steam–electric plant and the first direct current (dc) distribution system in New York City, powering over 10,000 electric lightbulbs. By the late 1880s, power demand for electric motors required 24-hour service and dramatically raised electricity demand for transportation and other industry needs. By the end of the 1880s, small, centralized areas of electrical power distribution were sprinkled across U.S. cities. Each distribution center was limited to a service range of a few blocks because of the inefficiencies of transmitting direct current. Voltage could not be increased or decreased using direct current systems, and a way to to transport power longer distances was needed.

To solve the problem of transporting electrical power over long distances, George Westinghouse developed a device called the “transformer.” The transformer allowed electrical energy to be transported over long distances efficiently. This made it possible to supply electric power to homes and businesses located far from the electric generating plants. The application of transformers required the distribution system to be of the alternating current (ac) type as opposed to direct current (dc) type.

The development of the Niagara Falls hydroelectric power plant in 1896 initiated the practice of placing electric power generating plants far from consumption areas. The Niagara plant provided electricity to Buffalo, New York, more than 20 miles away. With the Niagara plant, Westinghouse convincingly demonstrated the superiority of transporting electric power over long distances using alternating current (ac). Niagara was the first large power system to supply multiple large consumers with only one power line.

Since the early 1900s alternating current power systems began appearing throughout the United States. These power systems became interconnected to form what we know today as the three major power grids in the United States and Canada. The remainder of this chapter discusses the fundamental terms used in today’s electric power systems based on this history.