116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Let’s take a look at the early history of electricity and electric-powered conveniences in Linn County.
Electricity started out as a curious phenomenon. Mentions of static charges from rubbing amber date to the sixth century BC.
The tinkerers who played with sulfur globe friction machines in the 1660s and crude-but-powerful devices known as Leyden jars in the 1740s set the stage for what was to come. Ben Franklin was the first person to use the word “battery” for an electrical power source — he used it to describe several Leyden jars wired in series.
Biological associations with electricity existed long before electric lights were commonplace. References to electric shocks — as metaphors or actual descriptions of electric eels or lightning injuries — can be found in Linn County papers dating back to the 1850s.
Entrepreneurs in the early unregulated health remedy business capitalized on perceptions of the so-called healing powers of electricity. Dr. Smith’s Electric Oil and Thomas’ Electric Oil were often advertised in the Cedar Valley Times in the 1860s and ’70s, claiming they could cure coughs, dysentery and rheumatism.
Around that time, doctors were using static- and battery-charged machines to zap ailing body parts into spasms of perceived rejuvenation. In 1879, the Cedar Rapids Times recounted an attempted suicide by city leader George Bever’s housemaid, who swallowed poison. It reported a physician restored her consciousness by applying an electric battery to her for seven hours.
The first wave of game-changer inventions utilizing low currents of electricity took a long time to develop.
The idea for the telegraph had been around 100 years by the time Samuel Morse developed his version in 1832. His first long-distance line, between Washington and Baltimore, was set up in 1843, three years before Iowa became a state.
The first telegraph line in Linn County was completed in 1859, 10 years after Cedar Rapids was first incorporated. It was strung along the first railroad that reached the city, connecting it to Chicago.
In 1877, Cedar Rapids put up its own 5-mile system of telegraph wire for the purpose of communicating fires. The system included 10 fire alarm boxes and two gongs — one at the water works building and one at the fire chief’s house.
Alexander Graham Bell famously invented the acoustic telegraph in 1875. Within a year, he received a patent for it, got it to actually work and demonstrated a prototype at the U.S. Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.
Four years later, in the spring of 1880, installation of the National Bell Telephone service started in Linn County. Ninety-nine telephones were installed in Cedar Rapids offices and dwellings, which were connected to nine phones in Marion.
Crude motor-like electrostatic devices were pioneered in the 1770s before evolving into the electric motor that was patented in 1837.
The editor of the Cedar Rapids Times waxed poetic about the potential of electric motors in 1871, suggesting they’d supplant steam power in industrial equipment and even propel flying machines one day. Twenty-two years later, a fleet of electric streetcars indeed replaced public transit horse cars in Cedar Rapids. The electric streetcars would be replaced by gas-powered buses in 1937.
From 1904 to 1953, the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Railway, aka CRANDIC, used electric trains to shuttle folks between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. The 27-mile route took 75 minutes and was making up to 13 round trips in the beginning. An electric route from Cedar Rapids to Waterloo ran from 1914 to 1938.
Bright city lights
Cedar Rapids streets were lit by both gas lamps and electric lights in 1883.
Nearly 200 gas lamp posts with 5-foot burners were fueled by gas piped over from the Cedar Rapids Gas Light Co. on the east bank of the Cedar River, about six blocks below what was considered downtown.
That same year, more than 20 electric lights lit the downtown area, powered by the newly formed Cedar Rapids Electric Light and Power Company, which operated a generation plant on A Avenue NE. Ten years later, nearly 6,000 electric lights were illuminating Cedar Rapids.
By the mid 1910s, Cedar Rapids’ growing electrical grid was powered by a hydroelectric power station on the Cedar River.
Interestingly, the proliferation of electricity as a utility was met with a bit of fear and skepticism.
The Gazette offered mixed messages in 1883, editorializing that “Electricity is the wonderful and comparatively unknown subtle agent of today,” while also running pieces from Demorest’s Monthly that suggested petroleum was a better, underused resource.
One such piece declared of electricity, “… the great mass of community will never be able to use this costly illuminator to banish darkness from their humble dwellings.”
Joe Coffey, a freelance writer and content marketer in Cedar Rapids, writes this monthly column for The History Center. Comments: email@example.com