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  • Writer's pictureChris Quinn


Someone who decides to build a house faces a daunting task. It’s hard enough to act as the general contractor for someone else, but when you decide to build your own house, as my parents did in the early 1970s, it’s even tougher. There are a million decisions to make in an information-poor and rapidly changing environment, and one wrong step can literally cast in stone something you’ll have to live with forever. Add in the shoestring budget that my folks had to work with, and it’s a wonder they were able to succeed as well as they did.

It was a close call in a few spots, though. I can recall my dad agonizing over the wiring for the house. It would have been far cheaper to go with aluminum wiring, with the price of copper wire having recently skyrocketed. He bit the bullet and had the electrician install copper instead, which ended up being a wise choice, as houses that had succumbed to the siren call of cheaper wiring would start burning down all over the United States soon thereafter.

What happened in the late 60s and early 70s in the residential and commercial electrical trades was an expensive and in some cases tragic lesson in failure engineering. Let’s take a look at how it all happened.


To understand the aluminum wiring fiasco, it pays to keep in mind not only the material science and electrical engineering issues, but also to the market forces that made aluminum wiring in residential construction so attractive at the time. Worldwide copper production had been high through the early 60s, but voluntary production limits to reduce the glut raised prices a bit. At about the same time, the escalation of the Vietnam War and a home construction boom increased demand for copper, while nationalization of the copper industry by overseas producers and strikes by miners crimped supply. Squeezed at both ends of the supply-demand equation, the price of copper nearly tripled between 1962 and 1964.

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