Did President Benjamin Harrison Enjoy Having Electricity in the White House?

In 1880, Thomas Edison figured out how to make a longer-lasting light bulb, using carbonized bamboo as a filament. The discovery jump-started the world’s first incandescent lighting systems, which earned much acclaim at the Paris Lighting Exhibition of 1881 and London's Crystal Palace in 1882. Soon, gas lights began to fade away, slowly replaced by electrical systems using alternating current. But the technology was still unfamiliar -- and somewhat unreliable -- when electricity was first installed in the White House in 1891, during the administration of President Benjamin Harrison. The Edison Company installed a generator in the basement of the State, War & Navy building next door, and strung wires across the White House lawn. When the work was completed, though, President Harrison and his wife, Caroline, remained skeptical -- and never touched the wall switches, for fear of being electrocuted.

Wiring the White House:

  • Instead of mounting unsightly wires on the inside walls of the White House, workers gouged out canals in the plaster and then covered them up, installing round switches in each room.
  • Because the Harrisons wouldn’t touch the switches, it was up to domestic staff to turn the lights on or off. Reportedly, the lights would sometimes remain on all night in the second-floor presidential living quarters.
  • During Lyndon Johnson’s administration in the 1960s, the president was known for conserving electricity, routinely switching off lights throughout the White House in an effort to save money -- and earning the nickname "Light Bulb Johnson."
More Info: White House Historical Association

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