The story of how we put electricity into millions of houses thanks to a solution as simple as it is fundamental: the wall plug
One summer afternoon in 1958, Artur Fisher entered the small factory he had built in Tumlingen, today in the municipality of Waldachtal, in southwestern Germany. He absently greeted the workers he met at the door and went straight to the polyamide. He cut a small cylinder out of this material and took the drill out of the toolbox. The rest is history, the taco fisher (as expansive dowels are still known in the DIY world) I was about to revolutionize the world.
But, before Fisher and although it is not usually recognized in history books, the taco had already been key for decades in another great revolution: that of the electrification of the modern world.
A tale of ingenuity and 14 million tacos a day
Short and short-sighted, Fisher had started out in the world of industrial design and manufacturing by chance. When at the age of 19 he tried to enlist in the German Wehrmacht to become a pilot, he was discarded and assigned to become an aircraft mechanic in the Lutfwaffe. This brought him to Stalingrad in the worst moments of the war, but it also familiarized him with modern technology and allowed him to create a small workshop to reuse war waste after 45.
For years, he made a living making lighters and switches, but in 1949, he tried to take a photograph of his newborn daughter. In that epic, as the inventor used to recall, “for taking photos indoors there was only the powder flash. It was dangerous and you couldn’t take good photos because people closed their eyes out of fear. First I built a light reflector and then I developed an electric detonator ”. That is to say, created the first synchronized flash.
An idea that he sold to the IG Farben industrial conglomerate and that, years later, when it was exploded by the Allies, developed the Belgian company Agfa. This allowed Fisher to unleash his creativity and in the following years he registered more than 1,000 patents. The most important of all, of course, was the expansive block: the vault key of an industrial empire that has a turnover of 864 million euros a year and even today it sells more than 14 million pieces of plastic a day.
Fisher’s success has made his image linked to the cue. Nevertheless, his story comes from before and thank goodness!
And there was light … but only outside the houses
The history of electric light is long. In 1852, Francisco Domenech was able to illuminate his pharmacy in Barcelona and the city of Madrid hosted lighting tests in the Plaza de la Armería and in the Congress of Deputies. A little later, in 1875, the Ramblas, the Boquería, the Montjuic Castle and part of the Gracia Heights were illuminated (thanks to a dynamo). And in 1881, on the occasion of the king’s visit, the Cantabrian city of Comillas becomes the first city with electric lighting in Spain. Although, everything is said, there were 30 lanterns and he could not remove the patina of experimentality from above.
That same year, what is often considered the world’s first permanent public electricity production facility came into operation: Godalming, England. There, Calder & Barnet used a Siemmens water wheel, dynamo and alternator to illuminate the central streets of the city of Surrey and provide power to consumers of their choice.
Just a few months later, Thomas Edison commissioned his power station at 57 Holborn Viaduct in London and the electrification of the modern world was launched. However, as is often the case with great technological advances, we tend to focus on the apparent: illuminated streets, industrial electrification, the incipient (and truncated) birth of the electric car, but … How did the electricity get inside some houses that were not prepared for it?
Big innovations that depend on small details
A few years ago, when I was looking for a flat for the couple of years that I lived in Madrid, they showed me a small apartment that did not have all the electrical installation inside the wall. It had plugs, but there were no light points on the ceiling. So the lamp cords were hanging around the room. At the time it seemed very strange to me, but (now that I reflect on how electricity got to homes) it is a surprisingly useful image.
Traditionally, making any indentation was expensive and heavy (It was necessary to chisel a groove, insert a wooden block, fix it with soft mortar and then drive the nail or screw inside in a very precarious way). For this reason, when it was done, the natural joints that were between the construction materials were used. This, strangely enough, was a problem for the expansion of electrification, or you put the lights and sockets in often useless places. Or i know it required so much labor and money that it was prohibitive.
World War I (and the death or maiming of an entire generation) caused a labor shortage that forced to seek solutions for these types of problems. Solutions that could be implemented without great technical knowledge (or expertise): it was then that the wall plug was popularized by the hand of John Joseph Rawlings. From that moment on, the industry did not stop innovating: the first tubes of parallel fibers bonded with glue were quickly followed by plugs “made of lead, zinc, natural and synthetic rubber, hemp fibers, glass, wood and paper” .
With this simple technology: the wall plug, everything became simpler and cheaper. And thanks to him, in a few years, urban homes were filled with lights, plugs and much more. It is still curious how the great technological revolutions (the electrification that changed houses in a couple of dozen years) depend on such small things like a wall plug.