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  • Writer's pictureCraig Drabyk

The History of the Electrician: Powering a New Industry in America

The Electrician (ca. 1923), Retrieved from the Library of Congress

As groundbreaking new inventions like the electric generator, the electric motor, and the incandescent light bulb were introduced in the late 1800s, there was a growing need to construct, install, maintain, and repair the electrical systems that would power these technologies. With electricity still in its infancy, where would the workforce for this budding new industry come from?

Beginning with Thomas Edison’s construction of the Pearl Street Generating Station in New York City in 1882, the demand for labor expanded rapidly. Early power transmission pioneers recruited engineers, scientists, and linemen from the electrical telegraph trade to build their systems, and many other workers began to seek out electrical work as a promising new trade.

Formalized training for electricians was scarce during this era. Though some companies did provide training, most of these programs were quite modest. A few vocational schools began offering electrical training courses, but they were few and far between. To make matters worse, the work was hard, the pay was low, and safety standards for this dangerous profession were abysmal. In some areas, the mortality rate reached as high as one out of every two workers.

A pivotal moment for electrical workers arrived at the 1890 St. Louis Exposition, where linemen and wiremen from across the nation assembled to construct the convention’s electrical exhibits. This convergence of tradesmen led to the formation of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) in 1891. By the late 1890s, many IBEW local unions had initiated informal apprenticeship programs, and in 1900, the IBEW convention officially called for the establishment of formal, standardized apprenticeship programs across all locals.

Around the same time, private correspondence courses providing electrical training began to crop up. In larger cities, public high schools started offering evening classes. Over time, as the industry boomed and more and more workers entered the electrical field, the demand for higher safety and competency standards gained momentum. By the 1930s, some cities and states began to pass the first laws requiring electricians to have basic training and obtain a license to perform electrical work, marking a significant step towards professionalization and safety in the industry.

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