Farm Electricity Plants a Hundred Years Ago

19-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Wednesday, August 5, 1914: Ditto

Source: Kimball's Dairy Farmer Magazine

Caption: The washing of the greasy, smoked lamp chimneys and the dangerous practice of carrying a lantern into the hay mow are done away with. Source: Kimball’s Dairy Farmer Magazine (October, 1914)

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

The previous day Grandma wrote that she, “Forgot what I did today.”

Since nothing was happening in Grandma’s life that merited mention in her diary, and since I’m still fascinated with how technology was changing a hundred years ago, I’m going to go off on another tangent.

In 1914 electricity was widely available in larger towns—though it had not yet come to McEwensville. However, some farmers were beginning to install generators and batteries that could be used to produce electricity.

I don’t really understand how the systems worked, but here’s what an article in the October, 1914 issue of Kimball’s Dairy Farmer Magazine said:

The Farm Electricity Plant

For the operation of the little plant, less skill is required than to run the simplest automobile. It contains a gasoline engine of 1 1/2 horsepower, an electric generator or dynamo, a storage battery of 16 small cells, which can be placed on a shelf 8 inches wide by 5 feet long and a simple switchboard. The generating part weights but 160 pounds.

The cost of lamps and wiring will be about $3 per lamp, more or less, depending on the conditions and grade of materials employed. An estimate of materials and wiring may be obtained from a local electrician or contractor. Or the farmer may buy the materials and do the wiring himself at odd times. This is a simple matter with the aid of a good book on wiring.

23 Responses

  1. What an incredible technological revolution this was! We think we’re something today with our electronic toys but this was really life changing…thanks for the interesting post as always.

  2. I remember my uncles speaking of a “dynamo”. They lived in a small town (village, actually), and I don’t think they had electricity until some time in the 30’s.

    • I never heard of a dynamo until I read the old article that I quoted in this post. Your comment motivated me to “google” the term. According to Wikipedia:

      “A dynamo is an electrical generator that produces direct current with the use of a commutator. . . The commutator is essentially a rotary switch. It consists of a set of contacts mounted on the machine’s shaft, combined with graphite-block stationary contacts, called “brushes”, because the earliest such fixed contacts were metal brushes. The commutator reverses the connection of the windings to the external circuit when the potential reverses, so instead of alternating current, a pulsing direct current is produced.”

      I’m still not sure that I understand exactly what a dynamo is, though the Wikipedia article had a very detailed description and lots of pictures.

      • Thanks for explaining “dynamo.” It’s always fun to discover the original meaning of a word. In this case, I like the element of do-it-yourself in the description. When one qualifies as a “dynamo” I like the idea that it comes from the person him or her self.

  3. Our old windmill once had a generator on it. I never saw it operate, tho.

    • It’s interesting how electricity can be made from wind. I guess that the modern “wind farms” are basically doing the same thing.

      • Every cubic yard of air weighs 2.2 lbs. As wind blows, there are rivers of moving mass. Like water rivers, these air rivers are tapped for free energy. It is an ages old idea. I love it.

  4. It is fun to imagine how this affected life in general back then.
    Diana xo

  5. Electricity is arguably the most transformative invention in human history (although some might argue the printing press, perhaps, or also the internet.) It had always been around in the form of lightning of course, which is why clever Ben Franklin tinkered with it. But it is instructive to me that it sprang up so suddenly, historically speaking, as a DIY activity.

    Farmers had to be technically adaptable, what with all the equipment they used, so I suppose it was natural for them to experiment. I recall reading that after the invention of the telegraph, some farmers hooked up batteries to their barbed-wire fences so they could gossip with their neighbors and get news quicker! We are still living in an explosive technology bubble that is a mere blip on mankind’s 200,000 year existence as a species.

    • I enjoyed the story about the barbed wire fence “telephone.” I never thought about it before, but you’re right, farmers are skilled at adapting technology (and at fixing things).

  6. My own grandmother relayed stories of how wonderful it was to finally get electricity out on the farm. Sooo much we take for granted nowadays….until a power failure!

  7. Yes, I imagine it was a big change when they got electricity installed.

  8. I’m really glad I don’t have to figure it out! …

  9. Another good one by you; please add a Twitter button!

    • Thanks for the suggestion. I tried to add one, but I’m not much of a Twitter user and got confused about the process when it asked me to enter my Twitter user name. I may not understand how it works, but it seems like it is trying to link to my Twitter account rather than to this website.

  10. Yes – power outages today remind of us “the way we were.”

    • Life seems like it comes to a standstill when we have electrical outages today. It’s difficult to imagine how not having electricity was the norm back then.

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