Let There Be Light

Part of the Climate Change exhibition.

Light bulbs from the late 1800s--early 1900s.
Denis Finnin/AMNH

Beginning in 1882, commercial production of electricity from coal started what has come to be known as the "Second Industrial Revolution"—a revolution that continues today.

At first, there was no way to transport energy over long distances, so coal-fired electricity-generating plants were small and built in the neighborhoods they supplied. Today, plants are commonly built near the mines that supply the fuel. These are often hundreds of kilometers from the people who use the electricity, delivered by high-voltage power lines.

Light Bulbs

Electric light was a revelation: bright, constant, and safe. The first light bulbs, although small and inefficient, gave off 20 times the light of a candle. The discovery caught on quickly; American light-bulb inventor Thomas Edison opened his Lower Manhattan electricity generating station in 1882 and within 14 months had 508 subscribers. Most were businesses, and they used a total of 12,732 light bulbs.