The Pioneers of Electricity: Top 10 Inventors of Electrical Technologies

Nikola Tesla

In 2013, American households consumed an average of 12,988 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity for the entire year according to statistics published online by The World Bank. Per capita, America actually consumed less electricity on average than people in Sweden (13,870 kWh), Canada (15,519 kWh) or Iceland (54,799 kWh). However, the large population base of the United States means that the country tends to use the world’s greatest amount of electricity. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports that in 2015, total U.S. primary energy consumption was 97.7 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu); 39 percent of that consumption was in the form of electrical power.

Electricity may power our modern world but the phenomenon of electric activity has been observed for millennia. Studies into triboelectric charges, or electrostatic charging created by rubbing two objects together, extend back to the 6th century BC and the work of Thales of Miletus who found that rubbing amber on wool created a static charge. Starting in the 17th century AD, contemporary scientists began making contributions to the understanding of electric activity, including America’s own Benjamin Franklin. The first practical uses of electricity as a force that can be controlled to improve productivity were demonstrated in the 1830s by British physicist Michael Faraday, the discoverer of electromagnetic induction.

Recently, we profiled the innovations of Thomas E. Murray, the brilliant engineer who revolutionized the electrical grid of New York City and developed much of the technology which enabled the safe delivery of electricity to buildings. And then the work of William Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain in developing the first commercially successful transistor. With those profiles complete we thought about who would make up the top 10 list for electrical pioneers. Today, we’ll attempt to answer that with our list of pioneering inventors and rank their contributions to the creation of electrical technologies, which enable today’s consumers to turn on lights, receive video content through a display monitor or make the day’s first cup of coffee at the flip of a switch.

  • #3: Charles Proteus Steinmetz and Alternating Current – There are so many giants of innovation involved in the early days of electrical engineering and despite any physical deformity, German-born inventor Charles Proteus Steinmetz may very well have had the biggest personality of anyone. Hunched and standing four feet tall because of a congenital affliction, Steinmetz first contributed to electrical engineering in the 1890s by solving problems associated with hysteresis, or power lost through magnetic resistance, in electricity systems. Over the decades which followed, the papers published by Steinmetz on his research into alternating current electric circuits made him an influential figure in the field’s early development. One incredible anecdote about Steinmetz surrounds a consulting job for Henry Ford in which Steinmetz spent two days and nights observing a faulty electric generator, made a chalk mark on the generator and instructed Ford’s engineers to remove the plate and replace windings from the field coil at that point; this fixed the generator. Upon receiving a $10,000 bill for his services, Ford asked for an itemized bill. Steinmetz obliged: $1 for making the chalk mark, $9,999 for knowing where to make the mark. When he passed in October 1923, Steinmetz held more than 200 U.S. patents.
  • #6: Thomas Murray and the Fuse Box – Thomas Murray is not just the electrical engineer who converted New York City power systems to AC systems, he’s also responsible for many of the devices that enable the safe transmission of electricity from the grid, including fuse boxes and fuse plugs. The series of AC power stations designed by Murray and constructed around NYC helped to reduce the price of electricity from 20 cents per kWh down to 10 cents per kWh between 1901 and 1911. Murray was listed as an inventor on a whopping 462 U.S. patents which reflected a wide range of innovative activity, including anti-skid vehicle tires.
  • #7: Frank Sprague and the Electric Streetcar – The impact of electricity on urban development has been incredible and an important innovation in public transportation comes to us from American inventor Frank Sprague. During the 1880s, Sprague worked on developing a non-sparking motor with fixed brushes, the world’s first such motor to maintain constant revolutions under different loads, as well as techniques for regenerating power in the main supply systems of electric motor-driven equipment. Later on in that decade, Sprague helped to develop the first street railway in Richmond, VA, a line which stayed in operation until 1949; within two years of the Richmond line opening, 110 other electric streetcar lines using Sprague’s technologies began construction within two years. Although the exact number of patents held by Sprague is difficult to determine, records published by the New York Public Library show that Sprague and his companies held patents covering electric motors, automatic train control, electric elevators and electric traction technologies.
  • #8: Zénobe Theophile Gramme and the DC Dynamo – Direct current was not the more efficient form of electrical transmissions but it was still useful to perform work. The first commercially successful direct current dynamo, or electrical generator producing direct current with the use of a mechanical commutator, was invented by Belgian inventor Zénobe Theophile Gramme. Dynamos were known technologies by the mid-1800s but produced low average power outputs and thus were difficult to adopt into industrial applications. Gramme’s dynamo had an improved magnetic flux path by filling air gaps in the magnetic field with iron cores, minimizing the amount of empty space between the stationary and the rotating components. At the 1873 Expo in Vienna, Gramme alighted on an accidental discovery when Hippolyte Fontaine, an electrical engineer and Gramme’s business partner, used copper wire to connect Gramme’s dynamo to another one situated 500 meters (1,640 feet) away; unexpectedly, Gramme’s dynamo powered the second dynamo which then operated a water pump, proving that electric energy was convertible and could be used in a location which was remote from the point of generation.
  • #9: Charles Brush and Arc Lamps for Street Lighting – Edison may have brought light indoors but it would take the work of American inventor Charles F. Brush to shine electric light on city streets well after the sun set. Brush had an early interest in electrical engineering and constructed his first arc light while he was in high school during the 1860s. After Gramme’s work on the DC dynamo and the discovery of electricity’s convertibility, Brush set out to develop an arc lighting system to maintain a series of lights. Brush installed his first commercial arc lighting system in 1878 and by the early 1880s, many American cities had street lighting systems based on Brush’s designs. Although his wasn’t the first arc light, Brush’s system had a simple design, produced a longer service life in street lights and was easier to maintain. Brush’s engineering activities led to the development of more than 50 patented inventions in his lifetime.
  • #10: Lee de Forest and the Audion Vacuum TubeThe amplification of electrical signals by processing equipment is a foundational aspect of modern electronics. That’s why it’s no understatement to say that the Audion vacuum tube developed by American inventor Lee de Forest has enabled the creation of all the electronic devices we know today. De Forest’s contribution was to take a vacuum tube having two electrodes and introduced a third electrode, giving the device the capability of amplifying an electrical signal traveling between the two other electrodes. He first created what became known as the Audion triode vacuum tube in 1906 and by the 1910s, American telephone company AT&T was using these Audions at strategic points along a transnational telephone line to boost telephone signals as they crossed the country. De Forest held 180 U.S. patents during his lifetime and was named defendant in a number of lawsuits during his life, including several patent infringement suits.


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Join the Discussion

11 comments so far.

  • [Avatar for Anon]
    April 21, 2017 07:16 am

    step back,

    I found some small humor in the dwarf seeing farther than the giant in your link.

    So many today seem to want to denigrate the small steps (“that cannot be worthy of a patent” they say). The Supreme Court (slowly) reinserting their Flash of Genius and all…

    Reminds me of my own analogy to capture what the patent system is intended for: paving a parking lot rather than a gridwork of streets – and this is directly due to the very nature of innovation, which is not typically known a priori, but is more apt to the small interconnections of tiny steps.

    Some mistake dwarves for tr011s…. (and in my view, some do this purposefully)

  • [Avatar for step back]
    step back
    April 20, 2017 03:30 pm

    Was it Isaac Newton or someone even earlier who humbly said, “If I have seen farther it is because I stood on the shoulders of giants”?

    In this, the 21st century we should be far far more humble in recognizing the hoards of innovators on whose shoulders we stand to enjoy the fruits of the seeds they planted so long ago and by means of extraordinary effort.

  • [Avatar for Gene Quinn]
    Gene Quinn
    April 20, 2017 09:51 am


    Excellent comment. You remind us of some very important people. Perhaps a follow-up article is in order.

    Thanks for reading.


  • [Avatar for Bryan P. Holland]
    Bryan P. Holland
    April 20, 2017 07:51 am

    A top “10” list is impossible to compile in my opinion. There are simply too many amazing innovators and pioneers of the electroindustry. How can a list like this not include Franklin, Faraday, Westinghouse, Ohm, Ampere, Volta, Watt, Joule, Siemens, Coulomb, Henry, Hertz, Varley, Houston, Thomson, Coffin, and too many others to list here?

    That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed this article and appreciate the reverence for the people and history of our industry.


  • [Avatar for el Poesito]
    el Poesito
    April 17, 2017 11:42 pm

    Michael Faraday should probably be #1. His pioneering discoveries in electromagnetism are the basis for all the work mentioned in this article and, coincidentally, the foundation of modern physics. He was also an inventor who apparently never bothered to apply for patents which is probably indicative of the nature of the British patent system at the time.

  • [Avatar for Peter j sprague]
    Peter j sprague
    April 16, 2017 09:18 pm

    My grandfather Frank Sprague worked for Edison, with Edison and competed with Edison. I am certain that many of these pioneers knew each other. Their correspondence would be fascinating

    I have a letter from Frank Sprague in 1904 to Edison and Edisons scrawled reply on the same page suggesting that a conductive ink on brown paper could be useful. The printed circuit ??

  • [Avatar for Eric Berend]
    Eric Berend
    April 16, 2017 08:49 am

    Thanks, Steve. Happy Easter.

    Electricity is my main wheelhouse in inventing. Much appreciation of your inclusion of William Stanley, who I perceive as being the precedent closest to my own experience. So much of what is commonly assumed to be the work of others (Tesla, Westinghouse, etc.), actually arise from the inventions of Stanley.

  • [Avatar for Independent Inventor]
    Independent Inventor
    April 15, 2017 10:49 am

    Thanks Steve, for yet another in your long line of excellent articles on innovation.

    They continue to provide hope and inspiration to us “little folk” independent inventors. That we still have a seat at the patent table.

    Happy Easter everyone.

  • [Avatar for Anon]
    April 15, 2017 09:41 am


    Your post is its own indictment of your mindset.

    Most anyone would beg to have that type of “prevent[ing] innovation.”

  • [Avatar for Caesar Salazar]
    Caesar Salazar
    April 15, 2017 07:49 am

    Edison was the first patent troll. Leech off the work of others and prevent innovation in the field.