There was electricity in 1908

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Electrification started very early in Switzerland. The country is made for dams and railways - it is a pioneer. But the development 120 years ago was by no means uniform. A brief history of electricity.

This content was published on July 8th, 2018 - 11:00 am
Stefan Boss, swissinfo.ch

In 1879, the Hotel Engadiner Kulm in St. Moritz put an electrical lighting system into operation for the first time in Switzerland. "The upper class has demarcated itself socially in this way," says Florian Blumer, author of the book "How Baselland got electricity", in an interview. In the book, the historian describes and comments on 120 photographs on the electrification of the canton of Baselland (series "bild.geschichten.bl").

Until around 1910, Switzerland had the highest electricity production per inhabitant in the world, with very high annual growth rates. One reason for this was the topography, which offered good conditions for the construction of river power plants. After 1910 it was replaced by the USA and the Scandinavian countries.

Electricity as a symbol of modernity

Electrical energy triggered a second industrial revolution - the first was driven by coal - and made it possible, for example, for smaller businesses and traders to purchase motors. They could hardly have afforded a steam engine. Up until the 1930s, electricity was a symbol of progress and modernity.

Construction of many mountain railways

What was the main feature of electrification in Switzerland? Wasn't it more or less the same in all countries? In the beginning, organizers in Switzerland used electricity for patriotic occasions such as anniversaries, singing and gymnastics festivals, writes Florian Blumer.

He mentions, for example, a cantonal song festival from 1882 in Gelterkinden. It was there that electrical lighting was used for the first time in the Basel area. But there was another application that was very important, as Blumer explains in an interview. Electricity allowed the construction and operation of many mountain railways: cogwheel, funicular and suspension railways.

When it came to the railways, Switzerland turned to electric drives very early on. While the Albula Tunnel was initially intended for steam locomotives when it was built, the Bernina Line, which was opened in stages between 1908 and 1910 and connected St. Moritz with Tirano, was based on electric drive from the start.

The Swiss Federal Railways also played a key role in ensuring that the electric drive quickly established itself on the Swiss rail network. In 1939, 77 percent of the rail network in Switzerland was electrified, in the other European countries the average was only 5 percent, as can be read in the Swiss Historical Lexicon.

Anarchy until the electricity meter came on

Households were the first to use the new energy source for light. "This was the central application in the country," says Blumer, who wrote a dissertation on the subject in the 1990s. The replacement of petrol lamps with electricity lamps did not remain a privilege of the upper class for long.

A big advantage of the power lamps was that they didn't have to be cleaned every day. At the beginning, every household paid a flat rate for connection to the electricity grid; there were no electricity meters yet. "People were very creative with it and, for example, also hung irons on the power grid" - without paying for it, as Blumer explains.

World wars as drivers

The electrification of Switzerland was accelerated by the two world wars. During the First World War (1914 to 1918) there were difficulties with the coal supply, which led to a surge. In the Second World War, unlike gas, coal and wood, electricity was not rationed.

As a result, the number of uses increased by leaps and bounds, especially cooking with electricity, the "white coal". For this, however, the power line systems had to be reinforced. Many of the village cooperatives that had formed to distribute the electricity subsequently dissolved because they no longer wanted or could no longer bear the investments. Larger electricity suppliers were able to take over, for example Elektra Birseck (now EBM) in the canton of Baselland.

And today, in the age of the Anthropocene, when humans heat the climate? A contrary development is underway: According to the Energy Strategy 2050 adopted by the electorate in 2017, Switzerland should reduce electricity consumption per capita in the future (total energy consumption should even fall sharply).

According to Blumer, new energy sources such as heat pumps and photovoltaic systems make it possible to increasingly decouple from central energy supply systems. And, for example, to join forces with neighbors to form a supply unit.

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