Some say it’s the most complicated machine we’ve ever built. We rely on it not just each day, but each moment of each day. It reaches into our homes, factories, offices and stores. And at times it’s surprisingly fragile and subject to massive failure.

I’m talking about the electrical grid. We’ve recently seen it tested by Superstorm Sandy. And I’ve been reading up on it in several sources, including in an interesting book appropriately called “The Grid,” by Phillip F. Schewe.

I think of the grid as that miraculous machine that starts with energy sources like coal or water behind a dam and ends up with a highly flexible form of energy that we can use in myriad different ways. We run our heating systems, lights, computers, stoves, washing machines and more on electricity, banking on the grid being up and running to meet our daily demands.

Occasionally a downed limb of a tree takes out a power line in a neighborhood. Usually such an event is nothing more than a local and temporary inconvenience. But the complexity of the grid is enormous, and sometimes that complexity has led to cascading series of events from an initial small problem leading to major regional outages. And that’s been the case even without problems like hurricanes.

There are several different examples of major grid outages not related to mega-storms. Their causes and history differ. But a recent one occurred on Aug. 14 of 2003. People in New York, Cleveland, Detroit and Toronto learned just how fragile the grid can be. In total, residents in eight states and two Canadian provinces were plunged into a world without electricity when the grid failed.

Everyone suffered, some more than others. Some people were stuck in elevators, some in subway trains. It was a hot day in many places, and air conditioners immediately stopped working. Many people in New York who relied on the mass transit system couldn’t get home; some slept in public parks and the steps of public buildings.

Still, what may be most impressive about the grid is that so often it functions well. That fact, of course, makes it easy to increase our dependence on it.

The story of the grid starts in the Big Apple. Thomas Edison stands at the heart of the tale. He was the first person to have a vision of what the grid could be and how much it could mean to our daily lives.

Famous for inventing the light bulb and phonograph, Edison also devoted a great deal of energy to the project of building the first grid. And I do mean building. A consummate inventor, Edison was also of necessity an industrialist. To make the first grid he helped manufacture such things as circuit breakers, fixtures, wiring and conduits.

Edison’s first major power station for the delivery of electricity to diverse customers was in lower Manhattan on Pearl Street. The Pearl Street project was backed financially by the likes of J. Pierpont Morgan.

On Sept. 4, 1882, Edison threw the switch that activated the Pearl Street system. Juice flowed down the wires from six sets of steam-generators, each large enough they were known by the nickname “Jumbos.” The Jumbos ran on coal. (Coal, it should be noted, still makes a lot of our electricity even today.)

Once the switch was thrown, the energy of fossil fuels was converted via steam to electrical energy flowing through Edison’s wires. Edison’s grid worked, and he soon added many customers to the base he reached that first day. But Edison had used the type of electricity known as “direct current” or DC for his system. That’s the kind of electricity produced by batteries. In the end it was shown that “alternating current” or AC power had advantages over DC for applications like major power grids. In time, the national system was built using AC electricity. Still, the idea of the grid had been created by Edison.

I would argue that day in 1882 set the stage for the revolution in modern living the nation enjoyed throughout the 20th century and down to our own day. Nothing is as transformative to our daily lives as a grid bringing electricity into homes, schools and businesses. As we have seen in the aftermath of Sandy, a world without a working grid is radically different from what we have come to expect in our daily lives.

 

 

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.