History of Electrification in Europe
Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
Term Paper, AP European History Class, December 2007
Table of Contents
II. The Origin of Electricity
III. The Pre-War Period -1914
IV The Inter-War Period, 1918-1939
V The Post-War Period, 1945-1960s
VI The Relinking of Eastern and Western Europe
I. Introduction :
Throughout our daily lives we take the electricity for granted, turning off the alarm clock in the morning that is powered by batteries,
switching on the light and watching the morning news on TV. Yet without the building of power plants and the stringing of millions of
kilometers of wire, the electricity we now use would not exist ? nor would the modern world as we know it. Indeed, it is quite difficult
to imagine a modern world without electricity. More than half the engineering achievements would not have been possible without
the widespread electrification that occurred in the 20th century.
In the early morning of the 28th of September 2003, a severe storm forced a tree to fall, cutting a power line, located in the alpine
region somewhere near the Italian-Swiss border. Unfortunately, this just happened to be the cause of Italy¡¯s biggest blackout ever.
Not only was the capital plunged into darkness, but the entire Italian peninsula, from Venice to Sicily, was temporarily deprived of
This crisis leads to several conclusions. First, and the more obvious one, is the necessity of electricity. As David Nye puts it,
"electricity is an enabling technology that is not always noticed". (1) Our everyday life exists upon the basis of
unproblematic, continuous supply of electricity. Without the electricity, most of our actions come to halt. Electricity can therefore be
described as a necessity and normality at the same time.
A second and more important observation from the Italian power crisis is that the electricity network in Europe is integrated between
different nations. The blackout occurred because the Italian electricity network was disconnected from the European network. This
shows the interdependence of European countries in their electricity supply.
Although the example of a major blackout shows that electricity network in Europe is largely interwoven, there is no such thing as
the European Network, or a central control that coordinates the whole network. In Europe, electricity network was not built by a
collective European network, but rather on a national level.
This leads to the fundamental question: How did electrification in Europe come about ? How did different nations form an interwoven
electricity system across Europe ? I will focus on three periods of time in order to answer the questions: prewar period, interwar
period and post Second World War, but begin with a brief history of electricity.
II. The Origin of Electricity
To begin with the very origin of electricity, the word 'electricity' derived from ancient Greek, 'electron', but the fundamental study
of electricity started with William Gilbert from the 16th century who experimented on relationship between static electricity and
magnetism. In 1752, Benjamin Franklin, through his famous kite experiment, proved the characteristics of electricity and the first
battery in the world was invented by Antonio Volta at the beginning of 19th century. In 1831, Michael Faraday devised a machine
that generated electricity from rotary motion, but it took almost 50 years for the technology to reach a commercially viable stage.
In 1878, Thomas Edison (U.S.A) developed the first stable and domestic light bulb which led to the first commercial power plant
III. The Pre-War Period, until 1914
The world's first public electricity supply was provided in late 1881, when the streets of the Surrey town of Godalming in the UK
were lit with electric light. Edison had entered into an agreement with the City Corporation for a period of three months to provide
street lightening. This system was powered from a water wheel on the River Wey, which drove a Siemens alternator that supplied
a number of arc lamps within the town. This supply scheme also provided electricity to a number of shops and premises. The
method of supply was direct current. It was for this reason that the generation was on the consumer¡¯s premises as Edison at
the time had no means of voltage conversion. The voltage chosen for any electrical system is a compromise. Increasing the
voltage reduces the current and therefore reduces resistive losses in the cable. Unfortunately it increases the danger from
direct contact and also increases the required insulation thickness. Furthermore some load types were difficult or impossible
to make for higher voltage.
At the same time, Robert Hammond, in December 1881, demonstrated the new electric light in the Sussex town of Brighton in the
UK for a trial period. The ensuing success of this installation enabled Hammond to put this venture on both a commercial and
legal footing, as a number of shop owners wanted to use the new electric light. Thus the Hammond Electricity Supply Co. was
launched. Whilst the Godalming and Holborn Viaduct Schemes closed after a few years the Brighton Scheme continued on, and
supply was made available for 24 hours per day.
Nikola Tesla devised an alternative system using alternating current. Tesla realized that while doubling the voltage would halve
the current and reduce losses by three-quarters, only an alternating current system allowed the transformation between voltage
levels in different parts of the system. This allowed efficient high voltages for distribution where their risks could easily be
moderated by good design while still allowing fairly safe voltages to be supplies. He went on to devise practical develop
alternatives for all of the direct current appliances, and patented his ideas in 1887. The next year, Tesla¡¯s work came to the
attention of George Westinghouse, who owned a patent for a type of transformer that could deal with high power and was easy
to make. Westinghouse had been operating an alternating current lighting plant. With Tesla and his patents, Westinghouse built
an operating current lightening plant that won over Edison's power plant which continued to use direct current. Alternate current
would soon dominate Europe as well, recognized for its steadiness and safeness. Nowadays, Tesla's alternating current system
remains the primary means of delivering electrical energy to consumers throughout the world.
IV. The Inter-War Period, 1918-1939
The lights are going out all over Europe, and we won¡¯t see them lit again in our lifetime (2)
Fortunately, what Sir Edward Grey, the British Secretary of State, said on the first night of the First World War was mistaken in literal
sense. The power supply remained intact, lights remained good and sir Grey did not grope in the dark night. But at the time, many
other shared Sir Grey's opinion. With the economic crisis that followed, the 1920s, the image of an ageing and dying European
civilization emerged inside people¡¯s mind.
This pessimism caused bravery and courage to stand out. There were those who strived to put Europe back on track. The years
after the war, plans to revive Europe emerged varying from a European customs union to political union in the United States of Europe.
Primary aims of these groups were preventing any further war and turning the Europe into single one project that would achieve
economic, political and technological advance. Electrification was one evident part of this technological project. In the first four
decades of the 20th century, electricity networks slowly expanded and national networks were constructed. There were plans to
make a single unified European network, physically connecting European nations. Oskar Oliven, a German engineer, proposed
his plan in three different languages (German, English and French) after his address at the World Power Conference. On behalf
of his plan, part of the League of Nations, the engineering company Ekström & Crompton held talks with German investors.
The First World War shook up old Europe, both internally and externally. This period saw a proliferation of huge project plans,
not only in ¡®constructing¡¯ Europe but also in building electricity grid. It is important to note that Europe was not only a political and
economical project but also a technological one. The International Council on Large Electric Systems was founded in 1921 as
an international non-government organization with the aim to distribute technological knowledge on the generation and
transmission of high voltage electricity. In 1923, the Scottish engineer Daniel Dunlop established the World Power Conference
(WPC), a platform where international energy expert could meet and discuss electrification of Europe. The first congress, held
in London in 1924, attracted 1700 delegates from over 40 countries. Later on, Dunlop would join the Commission for Electric
Question of the League of Nations, representing the WPC.
Another organization promoting electrification founded in 1925 is l¡¯Union Internationale des Productions et Distributeurs
d'Energie Electrique (UNIPEDE). Although this organization was centered in Europe, it had also members from outside like the
United States and China. This served as a forum where technical, administrative, commercial and financial issues were debated.
One organization we cannot ignore in the history of electrification would be the League of Nations. The League, an attempt
initiated by American president Woodrow Wilson to ensure peace worldwide was founded in 1919. Here, Europe as a technological
and political programme came together and the commissions on the technical and intellectual cooperation made some
achievements. One important programme of this League was on General Conference on Communications and Transit.
Electricity was part of this, represented by the Commissions on Electric Questions.
After all of these conferences and congresses held by both governmental and non-governmental organizations, it is reasonable
to say that during the interwar period, Europe was heading for the idea of a single European network.
V. The Post-War Period : 1945-1960s
After the First World War, Europe put considerable effort to revitalize the loss of prestige in the devastating consequences of the war.
Despite all efforts, between 1939 and 1945, war once again raged across the World. On one hand, World Power Congress was
suspended and UNIPEDE went into 'hibernation' whereas on the other hand, the Nazi regime continued to strive for a European
power system. After the war, the project Europe got momentum, infused by American aid. A stable electricity network, or more in
general, energy, was prominent.
The Organization for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC), proposed more European cooperation in the electricity sector.
Therefore France, Italy, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland established the Union for Coordination Production
and Transportation of Electricity (UCPTE) in 1951 encouraged by OEEC. The UCPTE helped shaping an institutional environment
so that electricity network managers and engineers from European countries could gather and discuss about electrifying Europe.
Other European institutions dealing with energy were emerging at this period as well. One such institution was the European
Coal and Steel Community. The ECSC operated since 1952. Although it did develop an energy policy including electricity, they
did not interfere with network building.
Despite the takeoff of European integration, it did not include all countries that considered themselves European. There were
alternative forms of European network such as the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) and the Nordic Council. As a matter of
fact, the Scandinavia's regional collaboration was regarded higher than European integration :
It is no exaggeration to say that the efforts made in Europe to achieve closer coalition during the first decade after World War II
were not a first priority [...]. However, turning to the subregional ? the Nordic ? efforts of integration, a widespread wish for closer
cooperation was held by both politicians and the population. (3)
Furthermore, the Cold War provided a clear distinction between Western and Eastern Europe. Various regional cooperations
were set up, rather than one single European network under the umbrella of European community. (4)
The crucial observation is that even by the 1960s, there was no single European electricity network.
A quick glance at figure 1 on the next page reveals that there were in fact several grids situated in Europe, divided in regions : the
Central Dispatch organization for the Interconnected Power Systems in the East, the UCPTE in the Northwest, Nordel in
the North, the Union Franco-Iberian pour la Coordination de la Production et du Transport de L'Electricite and Sudel
in the South.
The most important and arguably the most influential committee at the time was the Electrical Energy Committee of the United Nations
Economic Commission for Europe. It was set up in 1947 as one of five regional commissions, one of its sections dealing with
electricity. Both East and West of Europe remained in contact through UNECE. UNECE remained virtually the only arena in which
Eastern and Western Europe met to discuss European affairs. (5)
In 1956 the representative of the Federal Republic of Germany in Geneva, Dr.Steg, wrote to Gunnar Myrdal, the secretary-general
of United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), that "Cooperation and the exchange between the electric power
stations in the UCPTE countries (Belgium, the Federal Republic of Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Luxemburg, Austria
and Switzerland) are so intense, that it would not be advisable to conduct special enquiries into the electric power exchanges
of the Federal Republic of Germany with Eastern European countries." (6)
Steg wrote this in answer to a request for information to be used in UNECE publication on the future of the European network.
While the UCPTE also claimed to be representing Europe, UNECE had a broader view of Europe and a sense of openness to
all nations, regardless of ideology. At this point, it was clear that the European electricity project was firmly in the process of
rebuilding. From then on, UNECE would lead the European electrification project at the front, holding discussions on a single
European grid for the next half a century.
VI. The Relinking of Eastern and Western Europe
After Germany had been defeated in 1945, Europe was divided in spheres of influence by the Allies, a Western and an Eastern
zone, controlled respectively by the United States and the Soviet Union, thus the beginning of the Cold War. Between those
two superpowers, an ¡®iron curtain¡¯ fell upon Europe as well and a period of rigid antagonism had begun. The actual breakthrough
of this antagonism with the fall of the Berlin Wall came in the late 80's and the early 90's, causing a necessity to change some
of the major policies in European countries. In the Prague summit held in 1991, the basic outline of the Trans-European Network
(TEN) was presented and extended to include Central and Eastern Europe as well. Some physical connections still remained,
for example in Austria.
Austria, after losing the War was split into four occupational zones ? French, British, American and Soviet. Still it managed to
prevent permanent division and joined Council of Europe in 1956 and EFTA in 1960. It joined EU only in 1995. In the electricity
sector that we are interested in, Austria played an active role. It was a founding member of the UCPTE in 1951 and had
connections with Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. In 1968 a connection of 220 kV between Vienna and Hungary was established
and in 1974 Austrian delegates visited neighboring countries to see whether more connections were available. Soon,
Austrians made a contract with Poland for long-term electricity deliveries. Fremuth, director of Österreichischen
Elektrizitätswirtschafts AG which is Austria's largest electricity supplier, was the driving force behind connecting Western
and Central Europe. He held negotiations with Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia ? their system would be in parallel with
the UCPTE since 1995.
After the fall of Berlin war, countries in the Eastern Europe have sought to integrate with the West, and at the same time, the
West welcomed most efforts to mutually integrate within the European network. In the early 90's Fremuth received a letter from
UNECE saying that UNECE is aware of Fremuth's project of electric power exchange between the USSR and Western Europe
and that UNECE would be grateful to receive any information on the subject of electrification of Europe. Since then several
organizations continued to meet for both East and West such as the Electrical Energy Committee of UNECE, which fiercely
promoted the idea.
"It is clear that is very much at an embryonic stage and I cannot tell you what the outcome of it will be and what influence
it will have in accelerating east/west interconnection but, thinking in European terms, we can say now that it is a step
towards developing the potential to increase the level of optimization of the European electrical supply system, by removing
some interconnection constraints, if I my put it in this very strict economic language.
But I think there is more than that to be said. This shows in fact that electric power lines can carry not only electric power but
a refreshing message of peace and this should be very rewarding for us all." (7)
Above was a letter by one representative of UNECE responding to plans for connection between the Federal Republic of
Germany (FRG) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Present Europe currently has one of the most intricate and
complex electrification system that is interwoven among different nations, all possible only because of tens of organizations
and hundreds of people and countless efforts put in order to establish a unified, stable electricity throughout Europe. Thus
I conclude that the history of electrification of Europe, though there is no single company controlling electrification of the
whole Europe, is largely an interwoven system that is highly dependent on each other, made possible largely by activity of
1) David E. Nye, Electrifying America. Social meanings of a new technology,
1880 - 1940, Cambridge MA : MIT Press, 1990, 26.
2) E. J. Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes. London: Michael Joseph, 1995
3) Jack W.Jensen,
"Sources for the history of European integration in Denmark (1945-1955)" MIT Press. 1990
4) Lagendijk, Vincent. Electrifying Europe. Working Document no.6. August, 2004.
5) Urwin, The Community of Europe, 14.
6) Archive of United Nations Economic Commission for Europe,
letter from Steg to Myrdal, 8.5.1956.
7) UNIPEDE, Eleventh congress, Sorrento 1988,
Proceedings of the Working sessions and other function
Note : websites listed below were visited in November/December 2007.
1. Archive of United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, Jacket 1,
GX 19/6/1/4 (3815):me/389/56: letter from Steg to Myrdal, 8.5.1956.
2. David E.Nye, Electrifying America. Social meanings of a new technology, 1880 - 1940,
Cambridge MA : MIT Press, 1990, 26.
3. E.J.Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes. London: Michael Joseph, 1995, 36
4. Electrification, from
Greatest Achievements. http://www.greatachievements.org/?id=2949
5. Electrification, from Wikipedia,
6. Jack W.Jensen, "Sources for the history of European integration in Denmark (1945-1955)"
7. Lagendijk, Vincent. Electrifying Europe : the Power of Europe in the construction
of electricity networks. Working Document no.6. August, 2004.
8. UNIPEDE, Eleventh congress, Sorrento 1988, Proceedings of the Working sessions
and other function, 1988.