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Energy timelines


600 BC
  • Thales, a Greek, found that when amber was rubbed with silk, it became electrically charged and attracted objects. He had originally discovered static electricity.
  • William Gilbert (England) first coined the term electricity from elektron, the Greek word for amber. Gilbert wrote about the electrification of many substances. He was also the first person to use the terms electric force, magnetic pole, and electric attraction.
  • Otto von Guericke (Germany) described and demonstrated a vacuum, and then invented a machine that produced static electricity.
  • Robert Boyle (Ireland) discovered that electric force could be transmitted through a vacuum and observed attraction and repulsion.
  • Stephen Gray (England) distinguished between conductors and nonconductors of electrical charges.
  • Georg Von Kleist (Germany) developed the first electric capacitator, a device for storing electricity.
  • Pieter van Musschenbroek (the Netherlands) independently developed an electric capacitator that would be called the Leyden jar after the University of Leyden where he worked.
  • Ben Franklin (United States) tied a key to a kite string during a thunderstorm, and proved that static electricity and lightning were the same thing.
  • Alessandro Volta (Italy) invented the first electric battery. The term volt is named in his honor.
  • Sir Humphry Davy (England) invented the first effective lamp. The arc lamp was a piece of carbon that glowed when connected by wires to a battery.
  • Separate experiments by Hans Christian Oersted (Denmark), Andre-Marie Ampere (France), and Francois Arago (France) confirmed the relationship between electricity and magnetism.
  • Michael Faraday (England) discovered the principle of electro-magnetic rotation that would later be the key to developing the electric motor.
  • Georg Ohm (Germany) defined the relationship between power, voltage, current and resistance in Ohms Law. 
  • Using his invention the induction ring, Michael Faraday (England) proved that electricity can be induced (made) by changes in an electromagnetic field. Faraday's experiments about how electric current works led to the understanding of electrical transformers and motors.
  • Joseph Henry (United States) separately discovered the principle of electromagnetic induction but did not publish his work. He also described an electric motor.
  • Using Faraday's principles, Hippolyte Pixii (France) built the first dynamo, an electric generator capable of delivering power for industry. Pixii's dynamo used a crank to rotate a magnet around a piece of iron wrapped with wire.
  • Joseph Henry (United States) invented the electrical relay, which could send electrical currents long distances.
  • Thomas Davenport (United States) invented the electric motor, an invention that is used in most electrical appliances today.
  • Sir William Robert Grove (Scotland) developed the first fuel cell, a device that produces electrical energy by combining hydrogen and oxygen.
  • James Prescott Joule (England) showed that energy is conserved in electrical circuits involving current flow, thermal heating, and chemical transformations. A unit of thermal energy, the Joule, was named after him.
  • Samuel Morse (United States) invented the electric telegraph, a machine that could send messages long distances across wires.

  • The mathematical theory of electromagnetic fields was published. J.C. Maxwell (Scotland) created a new era of physics when he unified magnetism, electricity, and light. Maxwell's four laws of electrodynamics (Maxwell's Equations) eventually led to electric power, radios, and television.
  • Charles Brush (United States) invented the open coil dynamo (or generator) that could produce a steady current of electricity.
  • Joseph Swan (England) invented the first incandescent lightbulb (also called an electric lamp). His lightbulb burned out quickly.
  • Charles Brush (United States) developed an arc lamp that could be powered by a generator.
  • Thomas Edison (United States) founded the Edison Electric Light Co. in New York City. He bought a number of patents related to electric lighting and began experiments to develop a practical, long-lasting light bulb.
  • After many experiments, Thomas Edison (United States) invented an incandescent light bulb that could be used for about 40 hours without burning out. By 1880, his bulbs could be used for 1,200 hours.
  • Electric lights (Brush arc lamps) were first used for public street lighting in Cleveland, Ohio.
  • California Electric Light Company, Inc. in San Fransisco was the first electric company to sell electricity to customers. The company used two small Brush generators to power 21 Brush arc light lamps.
  • The electric streetcar was invented by E.W. v. Siemens.
  • Thomas Edison (United States) opened the Pearl Street power station in New York City. The power station was one of the world's first central electric power plants and could power 5,000 lights. It used a direct current (DC) power system, unlike the power systems that we use today which use alternating current (AC).
  • The first hydroelectric station opened in Wisconsin.
  • Edward Johnson first put electric lights on a Christmas tree.
  • Nikola Tesla (U.S. immigrant from Austrian Empire) invented the Tesla coil, a transformer that changed electricity from low voltage to high voltage, making it easier to transport over long distances.
  • Nikola Tesla invented the electric alternator for producing alternating current (AC). Until this time, electricity had been generated using direct current (DC) from batteries.
  • Sir Charles Algernon Parsons (England) invented a steam turbine generator, capable of generating huge amounts of electricity.
  • William Stanley, Jr. (United States) developed the induction coil transformer and an alternating current electric system.
  • Nikola Tesla (U.S. immigrant from Austrian Empire) demonstrated the first polyphase alternating current (AC) electrical system. His AC system included all units needed for electricity production and use: generator, transformers, transmission system, motor (used in appliances) and lights. George Westinghouse, the head of Westinghouse Electric Company, bought the patent rights to the AC system.
  • Charles Brush (United States) was the first to use a large windmill to generate electricity. He used the windmill to charge batteries in the cellar of his home in Cleveland, Ohio.
  • The Westinghouse Electric Company used an alternating current (AC) system to light the Chicago World's Fair.
  • A 22-mile AC powerline was opened, sending electricity from Folsom Powerhouse in California to Sacramento.
  • The Niagara Falls hydropower station opened. It originally provided electricity to the local area. One year later, when a new alternating current (AC) powerline was opened, electric power from Niagara Falls was sent to customers over 20 miles away in Buffalo, New York.
  • Joseph John Thomson (England) discovered the electron.
  • The first power line between the United States and Canada was opened at Niagara Falls.
  • The world's first all turbine station opened in Chicago.
  • The world's largest generator (5,000 watts) was opened at Shawinigan Water  & Power; and the world's largest and highest voltage line (136 kilometers and 50 kilovolts) brought power to Montreal.
  • J. Spangler (United States) invented the first electric vacuum cleaner.
  • W. Carrier (United States) invented electric air conditioning.
  • Thomas Edward Murray (United States) created the first air pollution control device, the cinder catcher. 
  • A. Goss invented the electric refrigerator.
  • The Federal Power Commission (FPC) was established for licensing hydroelectric projects.
  • Lakeside Power Plant in Wisconsin became the world's first power plant to burn only pulverized coal.
  • Connecticut Valley Power Exchange (CONVEX) started pioneering interconnection between utilities.
  • The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was created. It was the first Federal power authority and was designed  to provide regional power.
1935 Some of the New Deal legislation passed during the Roosevelt Administration was designed to regulate public utilities and to bring electricity to rural America.
  • The Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935, which was designed to break up powerful holding companies that had bought up many smaller electric companies
  • The Federal Power Act of 1935 regulated utilities involved in transmitting and selling electric power across state lines.
  • Boulder (later renamed Hoover) Dam was completed. A 287 kilovolt power line stretched 266 miles from the dam in Boulder City, Nevada, to Los Angeles, California.
  • The Rural Electrification Act of 1936 was aimed at  bringing electricity to farms across the country.
  • Creation of the Bonneville Power project, a Federal power marketing authority.
  • Due to rural electrification, almost half of American farms had electricity, compared with 11 percent in 1932.
  • Almost all American farms had electricity.
  • The world' s first nuclear power plant (Russia) started generating electricity.
  • The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 was passed. It allowed private ownership of nuclear reactors.
  • Chaplin, Fuller, and Pearson (United States) working for Bell Labs, invented the first solar cell.
  • The Shippingport reactor in Pennsylvania was the first nuclear power plant to provide electricity to customers in the United States.

Last Revised: October 2007
Sources: National Energy Education Development Project, Intermediate Energy Infobook, 2005–06
California Energy Commission, Energy Quest (, October 2007