"A UPS is like insurance - you only fully appreciate it when you need it. But when that next power outage hits, you'll be very glad you invested in one."
—Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister of Singapore
The history of uninterrupted power supply technology traces back to that revolutionary inventor and Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin.
As the sage once wrote, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." This wisdom aptly applies to the crucial role of the UPS in protecting our modern digital infrastructure from the ongoing menace of power disturbances.
Since Franklin's time, brilliant innovators have toiled to perfect devices providing uninterrupted electricity to keep operations running smoothly through outages and disruptions.
From crude motor-generators at the dawn of electricity, to cutting-edge lithium-ion models powering today's data centers—the UPS remains a critical backbone technology enabling progress and innovation across history.
The roaring twenties were a time of great innovation, as America enjoyed a period of economic prosperity following the First World War.
It was an era of jazz, flappers, and a thriving theater scene, especially along the bright lights of Broadway in New York City. But this blossoming of culture and electricity was prone to interruption by frequent brownouts on an overloaded and unreliable power grid.
When the lights would dim, a show would grind to an unceremonious halt, sending audiences grumbling home without the song and dance they had paid for.
Enter inventors Frank and Charles Griswold, brothers with an electrical contracting firm who saw an opportunity.
Working with lead-acid batteries much like those newfangled horseless carriages were using to sputter into motion, they rigged up a bulky but ingenious system to keep the footlights aglow.
When brownouts struck, it kicked in within seconds to supply electricity, allowing the shows to go on uninterrupted before power was restored.
Though only supplying enough juice to keep the lights and music playing for fifteen minutes or so, it was revolutionary for the time. No longer would the theaters have to issue refunds and disappoint their crowds just because of some flickering and dimming.
The device was a crude heavy beast, with banks of lead-acid cells wired to the building's electrical system. But it did the job, keeping the stages lit, songs sung, and dances danced without missing a beat.
The Griswold brothers had brought some peace of mind to the Great White Way.
As the rumblings of a second Great War grew louder in the 1930s, military leaders realized that fighting modern aerial warfare would require uninterrupted electrical power to keep their defensive technology operational.
When enemy planes blacked out cities by bombing power plants, anti-aircraft weaponry would be useless if the lights went out.
To combat this vulnerability, engineers devised what were known as Rotary Uninterruptible Power Systems, which used massive arrays of heavy lead-acid batteries connected to generators.
These early UPSs provided backup electricity to power searchlights, sound detectors, predictive calculators, and radar antennas which were rapidly advancing.
When the skies over London, Pearl Harbor, and other sites erupted into aerial bombardment and blackouts during World War II, these crude UPS systems successfully kept anti-aircraft guns firing, enabling downed enemy planes.
The systems were expansive, with warehouses filled with lead-acid batteries wired to generator trucks and switchboards. They were cumbersome and extremely hazardous, as the batteries released explosive hydrogen gas.
But despite limitations, WWII UPS technology saved countless lives by ensuring radar sites and anti-aircraft installations had continual power, even when bombs destroyed local grids.
Soldiers would closely monitor the battery banks, risking electrocution to keep the UPS running amidst blackouts.
As the first commercially-produced digital computers began to appear in the 1950s and 1960s, a major challenge arose—how to keep these vulnerable early electronic brains from losing data every time the fickle electrical grid flickered?
Even the briefest outages could erase hours of painstakingly coded punch cards and calculations.
The solution came in the form of the first commercially-made Uninterruptible Power Supplies tailored for computers.
These bulky contraptions used heavy lead-acid batteries and cunning circuitry to sense power disruptions and seamlessly switch over to battery juice in a fraction of a second.
Though far from compact, since banks of storage batteries were needed to provide even a minute of power, these pioneering UPS systems kept the fledgling electronic computer industry viable.
When blackouts inevitably came, vital research and computations continued unabated, preventing catastrophic data loss.
Of course, the early computer UPS units were prohibitively expensive, costing thousands of dollars. But for government agencies, universities and corporations on the cutting-edge of technological change, the cost was justified.
Even as computers rapidly evolved in the 1960s, those pioneering UPS systems kept pace, getting smaller and smarter to shepherd these fragile electronic brains into the computer age.
Without them, the computing revolutions of decades to come may have been delayed by years.
The 1970s saw enormous leaps in electronics miniaturization, allowing Uninterruptible Power Supply systems to shrink dramatically for the first time.
No longer did reliable backup electricity mean banks of lead-acid batteries weighing tons. New technology allowed standby UPS systems that were compact enough to set beside a desk.
Using sealed lead-acid batteries, clever inverters, and early microprocessors, these pint-sized systems detected outages and smoothly provided battery backup power within milliseconds.
Now, a single desktop computer could be protected against damaging blackouts and brownouts.
When the grid power cut, the standby UPS kicked in to keep data safe and computations uninterrupted. Runtime was still limited, with most units providing only two to five minutes before batteries were exhausted.
But those crucial minutes prevented catastrophic crashes and made UPS a standard for any computer installation.
Still, poor battery life meant frequent costly replacements. And overheating was a constant concern for the miniaturized inverters and chargers in those early UPS models.
The standby UPS concept sparked a revolution in the 1970s that put uninterruptible power within reach of small businesses and home computer users for the first time.
By the dawn of the 1980s, computers had become ubiquitous in business and government, storing invaluable data vulnerable to even the briefest blackouts.
Previous UPS technology could prevent outright disaster, but still required swift shutdowns when backup power ran out after a couple minutes. This sparked a race to develop the holy grail of uninterrupted power—systems that could seamlessly provide electricity indefinitely, even during prolonged outages.
The breakthrough came in 1980, when Northeast Utilities engineers pioneered the first Online/Double-Conversion UPS.
This revolutionary new architecture converted incoming AC power to DC, then re-inverted it back to clean AC flowing to devices. By constantly regulating power, it could instantly take over when the mains failed. And by isolating attached equipment from raw utility power, it prevented surges and frequency fluctuations.
Now, computers could ride out blackouts lasting hours or days by running indefinitely on UPS batteries.
Overnight, downtime and data loss due to spotty electricity became a thing of the past.
The pioneering Online UPS of the 1980s was complex and costly, requiring rooms of batteries and high-end components. But for mission-critical systems, its unlimited runtime finally offered true uninterrupted power.
Companies like Emerson, GE, and APC soon refined this technology, ushering in a new era of UPS systems keeping even the largest data centers running without disruption.
Double-Conversion was a quantum leap, giving modern digital infrastructure the stable and reliable power it demanded.
The 1990s saw an explosion in home and small business computing, with millions relying on UPS systems to protect their precious data. But controversy erupted as once-reliable brands began failing after just a couple years.
Angry consumers accused manufacturers of rigging this vital equipment with built-in obsolescence to force costly upgrades every few years.
Cheap components and designs optimized for size over longevity were blamed for short UPS lifespan. But consumers also pointed to evidence of intentional engineering choices by major brands to limit operational life.
Lead-acid batteries were wired without protective circuits and often unusable just out of warranty. Fans and capacitors failed quickly in hot-running designs.
Software glitches caused abrupt shutdowns.
Outraged owners felt hostage to manufacturers profiting from planned obsolescence in an essential tool for keeping computers safe.
Consumer Reports and watchdog groups published scathing investigations, sparking calls to boycott brands engaging in this calculated UPS failure scheme. Class action lawsuits were filed as internal memos emerged discussing built-in lifespans.
In response, companies rolled out extended service plans and denied deliberate sabotage. But public trust was shaken.
Congress even held hearings on the issue, though no reforms followed. Despite this dark episode, competition eventually improved reliability and transparency. But the UPS failure controversy left permanent anger and vigilance among consumers expecting better from a product so crucial to their digital security.
Uninterruptible power supplies have come a long way since those crude lead-acid rigs first kept the lights on through brownouts.
Cutting-edge battery chemistry like lithium-ion and advances in power electronics now allow even modestly priced UPS systems to provide many hours of backup while taking up little space.
But controversy still simmers when it comes to battery lifespan.
Manufacturers emblazon impressive runtime ratings on the latest UPS models, touting reserves of a dozen hours or more.
However, fine print often reveals these are best-case numbers when units are brand new. Critics charge that actual usable battery life under real-world conditions is far lower.
Once depleted and recharged over months and years, runtime degrades faster than users expect.
Debates rage online with angry owners reporting batteries dying in 3 or 4 years despite 10-year advertised lifespans. They accuse makers of inflating claims to sell more units.
Companies defend ratings as accurate for new batteries with ideal care.
They blame early failures on heat, poor maintenance, and repeated deep discharges destroying cells. Still, concerns linger among enterprises trusting ever-larger UPS systems to keep vital servers running amid worsening blackouts.
While today's lithium-ion models are vastly improved, doubts persist on whether real-world battery life lives up to marketing hype.
Standards for rating and testing backup runtimes vary widely.
So the jury is still out on whether those tempting runtime promises will still hold when the next big outage hits years down the line.
More transparency and conservative ratings could help ease these ongoing debates.