Samuel Insull and the Evolution of Public Utilities

On November 11 in the year 1859, the man who brought cheap electricity to American households was born in London, United Kingdom. His name was Samuel Insull, the magnate who formed electric holding companies in the Midwest part of the United States.

Samuel Insull
Samuel Insull (Credit:

Samuel Insull was the son of a trader and preacher. As a teenager, he learned stenography which became his invaluable skill as he worked in the London office of Edison Telephone Company. Later, he travelled to the United States and became the personal secretary of the inventor. In 1889, he was appointed vice-president of the newly formed Edison General Electric Company. He moved to Chicago three years later to become the president of the struggling Chicago Edison Company. He was able to lower down electricity cost by introducing a two-tiered system of billing rather than the flat rate being used at the time. The lower cost attracted many households to switch to his company.

In 1907, the company was renamed Commonwealth Edison Company. By that time, almost all of Chicago’s electricity was supplied by this company. Samuel Insull went on to introduce central power stations which allowed him to extend coverage even outside Chicago. By using holding companies and selling stocks and bonds to the public, he was able to consolidate electricity generation and distribution over wide areas of the Midwest.

When the Great Depression hit the United States in the 1930s, the public utility companies of Insull began to collapse. He was sued and arrested for fraud, embezzlement, and violation of bankruptcy laws. After trial, he was acquitted. He went back to Europe and lived there for the rest of his life.

Samuel Insull died of heart attack in 1938 at the age of 78. He had a son with actress wife Gladys.


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