IT was only a century ago, in 1886, that Schuyler Skaats Wheeler helped to make the summer heat more bearable for Americans. To be sure, Wheeler's invention, the electric fan, was not an immediate success, but consumer resistance to a mechanism that could electrocute, or cut into human tissue, wore off, somewhat proportionately to the severity of the weather. Wheeler's story was an American success story. Born in New York City, he went to Columbia University, where his studies were permanently interrupted by the death of his father in 1882. Wheeler joined three electrical companies in succession, the last Thomas A. Edison's, where he worked in increasingly important positions.
Then in 1886 he became one of the founders of C & C Electric Motor Company, which made the first motors for commercial use. The company helped to revolutionize the telegraph industry by replacing its unwieldy system of batteries as a power source. In 1894 Wheeler's enterprise effected the first electric printing plant for a major life insurance company, which led to its doing the same thing for the United States Government Printing Office and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
As for the electric fan, that was accomplished by Wheeler in 1882, with the device increasingly widespread by 1886. Of course, hand-operated fans, which went back to antiquity, were his main competitors; less so were steam-driven models and those, such as a rocking chair fan in 1890, that were semi-mechanical.
In the late 19th century the deluge of electrical appliances helped put the electric fan in the forefront. ``Electricity is aggressive,'' the New York Times said in a lengthy feature story in 1889, ``and is pushing itself into many new fields. The next few years bid fair to witness new practical developments, and no wise man would venture to lay bounds to the extent to which electricity will enter into the civilization of the next decade.''
Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.