Electrifying the Nation

When we walk into a room and flip a light switch, we, often times, take the immediate flood of light for granted. It does not cross our minds where or how the power was generated, the manner in which it was converted into electricity, or how it is then wired into our places of living and work. It has just become an expected commodity. Electricity, however, has not always been that available commodity which most Americans, whether consciously or subconsciously, associate with everyday life. In the early 20th century, many big cities had ample electricity. As this phenomenon swept the nation, a large demographic was largely overlooked, farmers and those living in rural areas.

Morris Llewellyn Cooke was a prominent engineer in the first half of the 20th century. He served as the economic adviser to then Governor  Gifford Pinchot of New York. He was later appointed to the Power Authority of the State of New York by the new governor, Franklin Roosevelt. When Roosevelt became president of the United States, he directed Cooke to head the newly formed Rural Electrification Agency. The aim of the agency was to capitalize on the successes of the Tennessee Valley Authority. The TVA was a government controlled business that aimed to bring better infrastructure to rural Tennessee, namely electricity.

Cooke’s vision for electrification went beyond the confines of rural Tennessee. He recognized the importance that electricity was beginning to play in the lives of Americans as well as the incentives it promised farm workers. In 1934, however, there were still many farms without power. Cooke provides evidence to this in his article, The Early Days of Rural Electrification Idea: 1912-1936 when he states, “Of the six million farms in the United States, over 800,000 by that time had in some fashion been “electrified.” But only about 650,000 had high-line service. Over five million farms were entirely without electric service.” Armed with these numbers Cooke pushed for a government program to be established. He stressed the financial and societal feasibility of his plans to secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes. This, paired with his positive relationship with the President allowed the process to be expedited and on May 11, 1935, President Roosevelt signed an executive order creating the REA.

The article published about the early days of the REA is written by Cooke. With this in mind, it is important that what is read is also filtered for his personal bias towards a program he played a huge role in building. Overall though, he presents the ideas clearly and the need for electrification across the nation was apparently vital. The electrification of America allowed for a common ground of infrastructure to be reached. The REA provided the necessary groundwork by bringing power to the less accessible regions of the United States for the elaborate and inclusive system of power we have in place today.

 

Morris Llewellyn Cooke, “The Early Days of the Rural Electrification Idea: 1914-
1936,” 1948, in Canvas/Rural Electrification

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