The story of electricity in Hawaii is the story of the evolution of Hawaii Electric Light Company
Inspired by the Vision of a King
In an era of gas lamps, King David Kalakaua was shrewd enough to recognize the potential of "electricity," and helped pioneer its introduction in the Hawaiian kingdom. It was the late 1870s, and "electricity" was the talk of society. The king had heard and read about this revolutionary new form of energy, but he needed further evidence of its practical application. Kalakaua arranged to meet the inventor of the incandescent lamp, Thomas Edison, in New York in 1881, during the course of a world tour.
Five years after Kalakaua and Edison met, Charles Otto Berger, a Honolulu-based insurance executive with mainland connections, organized a demonstration of "electric light" at the king's residence, Iolani Palace, on the night of July 26, 1886. To commemorate the occasion, a tea party was organized by Her Royal Highness the Princess Liliuokalani and Her Royal Highness the Princess Likelike. The Royal Hawaiian Military Band played music and military companies marched in the palace square. An immense crowd gathered to see and enjoy the brightly lit palace that night.
Shortly after this event, David Bowers Smith, a North Carolinian businessman living in Hawaii, persuaded Kalakaua to install an electrical system on the palace grounds. The plant consisted of a small steam engine and a dynamo for incandescent lamps. On November 16, 1886 -- Kalakaua's birthday -- Iolani Palace became the world's first royal residence to be lit by electricity.
With the palace lit, the government began exploring ways to establish its own power plant to light the streets of Honolulu. A decision was made to use the energy of flowing water to drive the turbines of a power plant built in Nuuanu Valley. On Friday, March 23, 1888, Princess Kaiulani, the king's niece, threw the switch that illuminated the town's streets for the first time. A year later, the first of a handful of residences and business had electricity. By 1890, this luxury had been extended to 797 of Honolulu's homes.
The advent of electricity opened the market for generating plants to be installed at homes and sugar plantations. Anyone who could afford to buy a generator was serviced by the firm of E.O. Hall & Son. In 1891, four men, including E.O. Hall’s son William, met to form the co-partnership that preceded the incorporation of Hawaiian Electric Company. The co-partnership was registered on May 7, 1891. Five months later, on October 13, 1891, the co-partnership was dissolved and Hawaiian Electric Company was incorporated.
Meanwhile in 1890, electricity was introduced to the island of Hawaii by the operators of the Hilo Boarding School. Hilo at the time was a busy little port town of 8,000 residents. A water-driven dynamo was installed on an irrigation ditch at the Hilo Boarding School. It was only a small direct current machine, capable of powering about 12 bare bulbs. But, the school pioneered another innovation at the same time by attaching a half-ton ice plant to the dynamo.
From this first venture, businessmen saw the potential of electricity, and in 1894, Hilo Electric Light Company was formed. The company started modestly with a small ice plant and a 500-light dynamo. Electrical lighting was so popular that in six months Hilo Electric’s machines became overloaded and a 3,000-light dynamo had to be purchased.
On the west side of the island, small electric companies were taking shape to support the burgeoning sugar and coffee industries. In Kona, a large trading company that was heavily into the production of coffee supplied some of the finances to start Kona Light and Power Company. The year was 1932.
In Kohala, enterprising men dug a ditch to irrigate the sugar cane fields, and the success of sugar led to sugar companies generating electricity for their purposes and for the needs of the people who worked for their companies. And so in 1934, the Kohala Ditch Company took over the distribution and sale of electricity in North Kohala from the Kohala sugar companies.
At the height of World War II the Marines, urgently needing electricity at their camp in Kamuela, installed their own generators in the little mountain town.
By 1956, Hilo Electric had purchased or merged with all these smaller companies and by 1963, Hilo Electric had received the franchise for the whole island. In 1970, Hilo Electric was bought by Hawaiian Electric Company, and five years later the company’s name was changed to Hawaii Electric Light Company (HELCO).
Today, HELCO proudly services over 77,000 customers island-wide.