A 1921 cartogram based on access to central station power. (Photo courtesy General Electric)
A 1921 cartogram based on access to central station power. (Photo courtesy General Electric)

A cartogram is a map based on something other than land area and distance. A cartogram based on gross national product data, for instance, would depict the United States as 12 times the size of Mexico instead of the actual five times.

In 1921, someone at General Electric drew a map of the United States with each state scaled according to the proportion of population that had central station electricity. This being 14 years before President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the executive order creating the Rural Electrification Administration (REA)—when roughly 11 percent of the American countryside had such access to electricity—you can imagine the gross distortions.

New York takes up roughly one-fifth of the map, with Massachusetts and Illinois taking up another fifth. New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and California also are fairly large, but most of the other 42 states are tiny. All the big prairie and western states are slivers, with hardly enough space for the state’s name.

At the time, only 57.3 percent of the U.S. population had electricity, 62 million out of 108 million people. Washington, D.C., had the highest percentage of electrified households at 98.2 percent, higher than New York City. The state with the highest penetration was Massachusetts, with 97.8 percent.

This likely explains why Massachusetts has never had an electric co-op. It didn’t need one; rural electrification had largely been accomplished by the time REA came along. Its neighbors, Rhode Island and Connecticut, are the only other co-op-less states, and on the GE map they are much larger than they should be—Connecticut is about the size of Texas.

The GE map started to change ever so slowly as rural electrification, or the lack of it, became a national embarrassment.

In 1935, only 10.9 percent of American farms (744,000) enjoyed central station power, compared with Germany and Japan at 90 percent, France between 90 and 95 percent, and New Zealand at 60 percent. Our neighbor to the north, Canada, was also doing a better job of extending power lines outside cities to farms, ranches, and small towns: In 1935, Ontario was the provincial leader with about 20 percent.

Go back to the early 1920s, and the U.S. numbers drop to somewhere between 2 and 3 percent, although former REA Administrator Harry Slattery (1939–1944) argues in his book Rural America Lights Up that the real number might have been closer to 1 percent because more than half of the power was consumed by big irrigation and drainage projects, not farmers directly in their homes and barns.

In those pre-REA years, only an elite class of farmers were utility customers. REA economist Robert T. Beale described them in a classic article on rural electrification in the 1940 Yearbook of Agriculture: “Generally, these farmers were located along the main highways extending out from urban centers, where density of population was relatively high, or in sections of the country where the nature of farm activity made large power loads immediately available.”

Irrigated California farmlands fit that bill, as did large dairy and poultry operations there and in other states. But in the many regions devoted to general farming, rarely were lines extended more than a mile or two outside a city or big town and not before the serving utility had determined the profit potential of each farm along the way.

REA and electric co-ops changed all that. In 1940, just four and a half years after Roosevelt signed Executive Order No. 7037, 25 percent of American farms had been electrified. Among the bigger farm states, Indiana (37 percent), Ohio (42 percent), and Washington (57 percent) were electrifying fastest.

Ten years later, 90 percent had been electrified nationally. REA was proving to be one of the most successful government infrastructure-building programs in U.S. history.

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