The 1920s (1920-1929)

June 1, 2002
A look at one of the most explosive decades of the 20th century

After World War I ended in 1918, one of the most explosive decades of the century began: the Roaring Twenties. It was a time for change and prosperity in every way. Remembered for its speakeasies, flappers, Prohibition, music, social change, automobile craze, and advancements in radio, television, and film, the 1920s turned the nation upside down. The electrical industry was no exception. Just as women's hemlines rose from the ankle to the knee, contractors entered into an exciting new electrical era. As documented in EC&M's archives, the '20s brought improved power transmission and gave a tremendous impetus to the electrical industry. With better distribution, more and better motors, new controls, and trans-Atlantic telephone service, the industrial age was humming. The tungsten lamp offered better, cheaper, and longer-lasting lighting. Electrical refrigerators and ranges, as well as a flood of modern electrical domestic appliances, opened up a whole new world for electrical workers. After 25 years of wiring the country's homes, factories, and commercial facilities, contractors still faced the daunting task of replacing and modernizing the nation's miles of obsolete wiring.

The decade ushered in several notable technological advances, including Bell Telephone Laboratories' mechanism for recording sound electrically; Westinghouse's de-ion circuit breaker; the development of the expansion-type circuit breaker by Fritz Kesselring of Siemens; Vannevar Bush's product integraph; Martin Hochstadter's three-core power cable; Luigi Emanueli's oil-filled cables; and W.A. Whitney and E.B. Wedmore's air-blast circuit breaker.

However, after a decade of discovery and prosperity, the stock market crash of 1929 put a halt to the glory days of the Roaring Twenties, plunging the United States and Canada into the Great Depression.

Horsepower on the Rise

“The enormous development of American industries during the past 20 years becomes more apparent when measured in terms of horsepower,” writes John A. Clark in a 1920 article. Citing an increase in horsepower consumption from a half million in 1900 to 18 million horsepower in the early '20s, Clark notes the use of electrical power has expanded more than 3000%. What prompted this phenomenal growth? An increasing demand for electrical energy in industrial facilities and the electrification of old plants. Electric motors continue to win favor over their steam- and gasoline-powered counterparts because of the greater advantages of central station service. Putting this trend into perspective, Clark uses the following statistic to forecast the future. “In 1899, electric horsepower equaled only 5% of that for all primary horsepower. Today, that percentage has increased to 60%. These salient facts of past developments, when studied with the advancing steps of evolution, afford a working basis for making future estimates. In short, reliable authorities predict that electrical power in 1924 will reach the total of 30 million horsepower.”

Pioneers of Illumination

In 1921, R. W. Shenton highlights recent innovations in lighting and chronicles the growth of a new profession: the illuminating engineer. The first to appreciate the distinction between light and illumination, the illuminating engineer felt the need to develop new units of measurement to express relations of cause and effect. According to the author, “these units impressed us as being very technical and mathematical because we had to think of them in terms of their definitions, but once these units were adopted into our vocabularies, they were able to throw off this mathematical scaffolding.” However, illuminating engineers did much more than establish measurement units. Shenton suggests they made it possible to produce a high degree of illumination that would be helpful rather than harmful. “If we were to summarize the new era in illumination, we might characterize it as an appreciation of lighting on the part of the user resulting from his thinking of light in terms of not what it costs, but in terms of what it will do.”

Metering Panels Become a Necessity

Associate editors Allan Coggeshall and Henry F. Richardson examine the state of electric service in 1921. They find that in many large cities, owners bill tenants for the actual amount of electric energy they use, instead of covering this item by a flat rate included in the rent. Meters are necessary to properly measure this electric service. The usual plan calls for the installation of a master meter. Then, the lighting company bills the owner in bulk for all current used. The owner reads all the meters and sells that current back to the tenants. If the owner chooses not to handle this responsibility, he or she can hire a meter company to come in and read meters, bill tenants, adjust disputes, and maintain the house meter equipment — all for a fixed rate. The authors find this arrangement “very satisfactory because it frees up the owner from the drudgery of bookkeeping and electrical maintenance, and metering company specialists soon become experts in this work.”

Electrification of Oil Fields

In a 1921 article, E. L. Staley reports on a newfound use of energy: electrification of oil fields. According to Staley, “The discovery of the Eldorado [Kansas] oil field brought about one of the most remarkable developments ever seen in the electrical industry. And the funny part of it was that nobody dreamed that it would come about. Five years ago, if anyone had dared to suggest that more than half of the oil produced in the Eldorado field would be pumped out of the ground with motors, some of his friends would have started a subscription to buy him a one-way ticket to Ossawatomie.”

Although this electricity was great for running a fan or the wife's sewing machine, the idea of it powering a rig was simply ridiculous to most at the time. “Nobody could ever convince him that a man shoveling coal under a boiler located 30 miles away from the rig could possibly produce enough power to lift a string of 10-inch casings.” In the end, skeptics were wrong.

Radio Broadens the Electrical Playing Field

In response to the rise in radio installations, the Electragist introduced a new department called “Radio Service” in 1922 to meet the demand for information about this new craze. Because there is a growing tendency to include radio equipment in hotels and apartments, new opportunities open up for electragists. But is this business really worthwhile? “If he [the electragist] has been foresighted enough to enter the radio business, it goes without saying that he will not only receive the profits from the sale of the apparatus but also profit from the actual installation of the equipment. We are bound to see a great deal more of this kind of work in the future, and the electragists of every town and city will be on the job when the contracts are let.”

Don't Doctor the Fuses!

“Rarely do people monkey with the safety valve on a boiler, or overload it with weights, yet it is an everyday occurrence for them to tamper with the safety valve of the electrical installator — the fuse,” writes Benjamin Clark, chief inspector for the Department of Electrical Inspection City of Detroit, in a 1924 article that closely resembles today's Code Violations Illustrated column. He begins with an example from one of his inspectors who visited a motion picture theatre. After inspecting the building's wiring, he found “scarcely a fuse that was not backed by a coin.” Overall, he collected 41 cents in pennies, dimes, and nickels — enough to buy a ticket to the matinee. “Fuses had been so fixed that they would carry more than the line itself, and an overloaded circuit beyond question would have produced a fire, and beyond a reasonable doubt a panic.”

In another inspection, the author details the problems he found in a Detroit hotel. Twenty-two brass fuses had been bypassed by cutting away part of the base and turning it over, thus short-circuiting the fuse. In another part of the same installation, he discovered someone had used three pieces of No. 8 Cu. wire to replace blown fuses.

According to Clark, there is only one answer to this problem. “Is it necessary to stand by and let it go on? Do we have to go along, cheerfully replacing doctored fuses as we find them, and trusting to providence that those we do not find will cause no trouble? There is but one solution to the problem — put the main fuses under seal.”

Legitimizing Lightning Protection

“The popular conception of the lightning-rod salesman still classes him with the old-fashioned country peddler whose rickety wagon carried everything from potato mashers to bolts of ribbons,” reports the Electragist in a 1924 article. Until a few years earlier, no statistics existed on losses from lightning in rodded and unrodded property. As a result, contractor-dealers have shown little interest in this area. However, the Electragist warns against this mindset. Lightning protection is a necessary and profitable field.

The Symbol of Adequate Wiring

Introduced in 1924 to promote adequate wiring for convenient electric service, the Red Seal Plan is now available for use in the United States. Initiated by the Electric Service League of Toronto, the plan is offered to any electrical league according to certain regulations. The Red Seal (left) is placarded on the outside of any home wired according to the plan. Later, a smaller permanent seal is placed on the meter box. Finally, the homeowner receives a certificate as evidence that the house is adequately wired.

New Business in Motor Repair

Motor repair work has grown tremendously in the last few years, according to the Electragist in the mid '20s. According to the editors, what was once deemed a side job for most contractor-dealers has transformed into a substantial business — especially in larger cities where contractors are doing this type of work almost exclusively. Recognizing the importance of this niche, the Association of Electragists formed a motor repair section and issued a manual.

Workmen's Comp Concerns

According to a 1926 analysis, compiled for the Electragist by Lynton T. Block & Company, St. Louis, electrical accidents are growing at an alarming rate. Although most of the accidents are minor, they are sufficient enough to cause the worker to apply for compensation. “In most cases, moreover, they lead to a period of individual layoff, which it goes almost without saying, slows up the work in hand, and not infrequently, causes the contractor a loss from the angle.” The following list is a compilation of accidents that electrical workers sustained and the percentage workman's comp claims they represented: falling from ladders and scaffolds (10%); feet injured from stepping on nails (10%); injuries from handling wire and conduit (10%); hands and fingers injured from using hammers (9%); eyes injured while drilling steel (9%); objects falling from above, such as bricks (7%); sprains of back and shoulder from lifting (7%); cutting fingers and hands on knives and drills (7%); slipping and tripping on floor (5%); letting motors, pipes, and other heavy joists fall on feet (5%); injuries in testing motors, fans, and from short circuits (4%); mashing fingers and hands while handling objects (3%); eye injuries while cutting concrete (3%); and miscellaneous (11%).

Are Inspectors Receiving Fair Pay?

According to a national survey conducted by the Electragist in 1927, the average salary of inspectors is $43 per week — well below the average wage of wiremen. In the article, “Are Electrical Inspectors Being Paid Enough,” the editors note the most disappointing finding is the lack of advancement for inspectors. Only 19 inspection departments surveyed have any provision for recognizing efficiency of their employees. Thirty others do not offer the men any particular incentive for top performance. Only two cities have any regularly graded method of advancing inspectors. The remaining 17 provide only small salary advances. Even the salaries of the chief inspectors are small when compared with those of individuals in private business that are under similar executive responsibilities. They earn from $1800 to $5000 per year, with an average of $2900. In almost every case, they are fixed by an ordinance, so only the municipal legislative body can change them.

Trucks: To Own or Not to Own

In a 1928 service piece on trucking and the electrical contractor, Electragist editors summarize the findings of a recent field survey that explores the pros and cons of owning your own truck. According to the responses, there is a growing tendency on the part of contractors to hire all or part of their trucking needs out to commercial trucking companies. The details of the survey are summarized below.

  • Almost every contractor owns at least one truck or passenger car that he uses for delivery. Of those surveyed, 80% own one or more trucks, while the other 20% hire out trucking needs. The costs of owning a truck vary — the average being $1224 per year. This figure includes gas, oil, repairs, tires, and a sufficient amount for depreciation. Truck rental rates vary in different cities from $1 per hour to $2.50 per hour. According to those surveyed, contractors can save about 40% by hiring trucks.
  • Almost all respondents believe hiring trucks is cheaper than owning them and paying for gas, oil, repairs, depreciation, and a driver.
  • The constant complaint of those contractors who exclusively hire trucks is the time and efficiency lost while waiting to get the truck.
  • Electrical contractors operate from one to three trucks, ranging from ½-ton to 2-ton models.

Inspectors Form International Association

The first executive council meeting of the International Association of Electrical Inspectors (IAEI) took place Nov. 14, 1928, in New York. The association started off with about 2000 members, more than half of whom were inspectors. Under the leadership of J. C. Forsyth, the first president of IAEI, the association worked to develop the NEC from an inspection viewpoint and enforce provisions; cooperate in the formulation of standards for the safe installation and use of electrical materials, devices, and appliances; promote the uniform understanding and application of the Code; secure and promote uniform administrative ordinances and inspection methods; collect and disseminate information relative to the safe use of electricity; represent inspectors in national and international issues; cooperate with other national and international organizations to develop the electrical industry; and promote closer cooperation between inspectors, inspection departments, the electrical industry, and the public.

The Pros and Cons of Concentric Wiring

In a 1928 article on the debate over concentric wiring, Electrical Contracting editors discuss the movement to bring concentric wiring to the United States before World War I. Although this initial effort failed, there is a strong manufacturing presence for this product after the war. In the late 1920s, a central conductor covered with insulation and an outer steel jacket constitutes a concentric wire. The editors deem it a safe system when properly installed and carefully maintained. Although it's certainly cost-effective, they say it requires more rigid inspection than other systems. According to the editors, all connections must be tight — loose connections will produce slow leaks, and concentric wiring could never stand up to the strain of heavy traffic. In conclusion, they determine this wiring is unnecessary. “Concentric wiring doesn't go with other types of wiring. It is different in every way. Are we to scrap present wiring or attempt to hitch this other type to it? And if we do, what a wonderful opportunity for reversals. No, it just won't do. Europe, contrary to what our misguided central station friends may say, is not sold on concentric wiring. Are we to take up what even Europe won't stand?”

What Should a Contractor Earn?

In 1928, the editors of the Electragist conducted a salary survey of 112 electrical contractors and received more than a 20% return rate. The findings revealed the average electrical contractor, who has been in business just 10 years, pays himself a salary of $3205 annually, just a little more than he pays his average superintendent ($2810). Of his average annual revenue of $60,533, he allocates about 7% for salaries. Of those firms studied, 22% were partnerships, 15% were corporations, and 63% were individually owned.

Circuit Breaker Breakthroughs

In a 1929 article, Editor S. B. Williams highlights progress in small circuit breakers for residential purposes. Although promoters of this equipment claim these devices will solve the problem of overfusing circuits, Williams is skeptical. “It is doubtful if anything will stop those people who willfully want to overload the wiring. A circuit breaker, however, should prove more forceful in persuading the customer to have recurrent trouble looked into.” Because manufacturers and inspectors are looking for a fuse that can neither be bridged nor backed up by a penny, “the industry should see a marked improvement in branch circuit protection.”

Electrical Fires

As reported by the electrical bureau of the New York Board of Fire Underwriters in a 1929 article, flexible cords used in circuit work and the disturbance in motor and generator windings were the most frequent causes of electrical fires in 1928. According to the author, F. N. M. Squires, there is no defense against the dangers of flexible cord used in circuit work. He notes flexible cord is a violation of Code rule 614-a and is a condition damned by inspectors. As the totals for “conductors in gutter space” show, the dangers of crowding wires are real. “The Code allows but nine wires to be grouped together in a conduit, but in the gutters of panel boards and of cutout boxes we often find great tangles of wires.” Next, the author points out the “heating of armor of interior cable” listing. “Let us hope that from this the cable manufacturers and Underwriters Laboratories will recognize the need of getting back to a heavier armor. Let us respectfully remind them that the war is over and of the necessity of a return to normalcy. Many inspectors have for some time been calling the light armor of the present cable ‘heater coils.’”

“Electrify Your Home” Campaign

In 1920, the following California cooperative advertising campaign ran in newspapers across the country, under the slogan “Electrify Your Home.” Your House is Not Electrically Modern Without the Following:

  • Electric name and house number plate
  • Porch lights
  • Doorbell
  • Automatic door-opener and latch
  • Burglar alarm
  • Electric oven
  • Electric dishwasher
  • Electric water heater
  • Electric waffle iron
  • Electric shaving mug
  • Electric curling iron
  • Electric hair dryer
  • Electric massager
  • Electric bed warmer
  • Electric toaster
  • Electric percolator
  • Sewing machine
  • Vacuum cleaner
  • Washing machine
  • Iron
About the Author

Ellen Parson | Editor-in-Chief - EC&M

Ellen Parson is the Editor-in-Chief for EC&M. She has a journalism degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia. She's been a business-to-business writer and editor for more than 25 years, most of which have been covering the construction and electrical industries. Contact her at [email protected].

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