Pennsylvania Power & Light traces its origins to the various water and gas light companies that began operating in the eastern part of the state during the mid-nineteenth century. In the late 1870s electricity was introduced to the area and started to compete with gas. The first arc lighting systems were used for street lighting. In the early 1880s, Thomas Edison began building central stations that were designed to bring electricity to individual homes. On July 4, 1883 Edison opened a central station in Sunbury, Pennsylvania and through his agent, Philip B. Shaw of Williamsport, he began licensing local electric companies to use the system.
The early Edison companies which relied on direct current were extremely inefficient. In 1885, however, George Westinghouse developed an alternating current system that could transmit relatively high voltages over long distances. This development made the modern electric utility system possible. By the 1890s it was clear that the Edison companies could not compete and they either went bankrupt or were forced to purchase Westinghouse generating equipment.
Once the Westinghouse Electric Company began marketing its alternating current systems, entrepreneurs found that they could establish electric light companies with relatively modest investments. Hundreds of small operators entered the business. The electrification of anthracite coal mines, street railways, and the exploitation of the Susquehanna River's water power resulted in intense cut-throat competition which bankrupted many operators.
The development of turbines and high-voltage transmission lines during the early years of the twentieth century allowed utilities to centralize their generating distribution facilities. In 1905, when the Lehigh Valley Transit Company installed its first modern turbogenerators, it launched a consolidation movement that, within twenty years, was to integrate the electric industry in eastern Pennsylvania into a unified system.
General Electric, through its subsidiary Electric Bond and Share Company (EBASCO), financed the investment in new generating equipment. In 1920 EBASCO organized the Pennsylvania Power & Light Company which brought together the seven largest utility companies in eastern Pennsylvania. Within five years, PP&L was supplying electricity to more than 400,000 residential and industrial customers in 700 communities.
Scope and Content
The records of the Pennsylvania Power & Light Company document the history of the gas and electric utility industry in eastern Pennsylvania in the years between 1853 and 1955. The collection includes both the administrative and operating records of more than 1100 companies that merged to form the PP&L system. The firms represented in the collection include electric companies, manufactured and natural gas companies, steam heating, water supply, street railway, bus, traction, coal mining and coal dredging, real estate and holding companies. These records document the economic and technical development of the utility industry against the background of the political and social environment of eastern Pennsylvania.
The earliest records, dating from the 1850s, describe the rapid growth and development of the urban gas lighting industry in Carlisle, Maunch Chunk, Milton, Sunbury, Wilkes Barre, and Williamsport. Minute books of these companies document the construction and operation of gas works and negotiations of franchise rights.
The records of the Edison companies describe the development of arc and incandescent lighting. The beginnings of electric service and its impact on gas companies in many of the larger cities and small towns in eastern Pennsylvania are chronicled in the minute books and stock records. The records also document the competition between Westinghouse and Edison companies, the introduction of large turbogenerators, and their effect on the competitive environment. The financial records illustrate the effects of cut-throat competition on the individual companies. Of particular interest are correspondence files documenting the electrification of street railways, factories and coal mines. These records describe how the utilities promoted the sale of electrical appliances to residential customers.
Records of the Pennsylvania Water & Power Company document the large-scale hydroelectric projects which harnessed the water power of the Susquehanna River. The consolidation movement that led to the formation of Pennsylvania Power & Light is described in the records of EBASCO as well as in the minute books and correspondence files of the Harwood Electric Company, the Lehigh Valley Light and Power Company, and the Schuylkill Gas and Electric Company. These archives document the consolidation of the utility industry. Payroll records, time sheets and job descriptions trace the impact of these new administrative structures on personnel practices and labor-management relations.