100 years of light: how electricity changed our lives

Published on Monday, 30 May 2022

The City Lights Up

Electricity did not arrive to Chile as late as it did to some other countries. “For example, the first illuminations appeared in New York City in 1880, and the first electric street lights were installed in the Santiago Plaza de Armas in 1883, just three years later. This indicates that the technological changes and benefits of electricity really sped things up,” says researcher Waldo Vila.

At the beginning, the streetlights in downtown Santiago used coal as an energy source, but around 1902 and 1903, with the arrival of the hydropower plants, interest moved away from coal, and this type of water-powered renewable energy took on a leading role in the development of Chilean cities. According to data from the National Library, the construction of the first Chilean hydropower plant in 1897, located in Chivilingo, paved the way for other important facilities in Santiago and other cities around the country.

“The first ones to welcome lighting were the large private estate homes, which changed their architecture and added on new interior rooms. It is really interesting to see a proliferation of elevators around the turn of the 20th century in Santiago, as well as telephone rooms or car garages. Modernity became a status symbol, and modernity goes hand-in-hand with electricity,” says cultural conservation and restoration specialist, Mario Rojas.

Santiago Plaza de Armas, 1919

A few years later, on September 1, 1921, with the creation of the Compañía Chilena de Electricidad Limitada (which would later become Chilectra, and now Enel Distribución Chile), its use would be extended to the masses and incorporated in all Chilean homes.

“The rise and expansion of electricity in Chile coincides with the 1920s, which also marks a rupture in the country's social, economic, and cultural paradigms.”

– says Rojas.

“Let’s imagine ourselves in Santiago at the time, where it was very difficult to install energy in the home, there were no cables, no installations, and let’s now also imagine what a commotion it must have caused to see homes with electricity (...) it's a new way of life, a longer life; you no longer have to go to bed at five in the afternoon during the winter, you can have parties, you can dress differently. There’s a strong influence from that time on the way people dressed, you began to see embroidered dresses, sparkles, women could stand out more, and it marked an absolute change in lifestyle,” says Fernando Imas, founder of the Brügmann study, a platform for research and dissemination of Chilean culture and history.

Headquarters of Compañía Chilena de Electricidad, at the corner of Santo Domingo and San Antonio.

Trolleys: The City's Engine

In 1900, 20 years before the creation of the Compañía Chilena de Electricidad, the electric trolleys began to operate and replace horse-drawn buggies. This new mode of transport arrived to Valparaiso only three years later.

“Horse-drawn buggies” waiting for passengers outside the Santiago Cathedral.

“It was such a novelty because there were no cars at the time, so people began to use a mode of transport powered by a type of energy they couldn’t see, because you could see the horse, you could hear it, you could smell it. The trolleys changed up the sounds, travel times were shortened, it was a complete revolution,” says researcher Mario Rojas.

According to transport expert, Waldo Vila, this had a direct impact on the lives of Santiago residents.

“At the beginning of the 20th century, trolleys made around 1 to 2 million trips a day, in a city of around 300,000 people, so by the year 1950, the trolleys were what moved Santiago.”

– he highlights.

A trolley in downtown Santiago.

Electrical Appliances Are Here to Stay

Another major change in people's routine was the invention of electrical appliances, now an essential part of the operation of every home. First came the iron, and it was followed by refrigerators, washing machines, and others.

These objects primarily helped substitute the physical load and reduce work times for women, who were the ones mostly responsible for household chores.

Downtown Santiago.

By 1922, another invention developed thanks to electricity made for a new revolution: the radio, which became the only mass communications medium until August 21, 1959, when Channel 13, of the Catholic University of Chile, began the first television transmission.

News programs changed the way people got information, the television was easier, more democratic, because not everyone knew how to read. The newspaper was distributed to the masses, but not everyone understood it,” says researcher Fernando Imas.

Moving into the Future

The energy matrix that allowed Chile to grow and modernize has historically been highly dependent on fossil fuels; however, our country is currently progressing decisively into a new era at the hand of renewable energies, digitalization, and electrification, while also decarbonizing the system. “They industrialized the world, but they also caused global warming which is raising more and more concern. Because fossil fuels are finite resources, Chile has to give other development strategies a shot,” says Vila.

Wind, solar and geothermal plants.

In the case of Latin America, large cities play a key role due to the high concentration of residents, making them the backdrop for the main challenges and opportunities to mitigate climate change and promote a new perspective of sustainable development. In this sense, Santiago has positioned itself as the Latin American capital best prepared to bring the benefits of the energy transition to all of its residents, such as access to clean energy, more digitalized and autonomous management of our own consumption, a more flexible and resilient electrical grid, a more efficient use of energy, and a broader use across all areas of life. One example is electromobility in public transport, where Santiago has become a regional leader with the incorporation of hundreds of electric buses in its RED public transportation system.

“The modernization we are seeing today in terms of transport is truly substantive and necessary (...), and I think this change is a really good sign, because electricity will undoubtedly be the driving force of the 21st century, like oil was for the 20th century,” affirms Vilas.

“If it weren’t for electricity, we’d be living in a different world,” concludes Fernando Imas.