Saturday, November 13, 2010

Power & Light

Electric sign and lighting on the Seattle steam plant, Seattle City Light

While letting my imagination go on last week's Thematic Photographic theme, "Electric," I read a lot about electrical utility companies and their facilities.

America's public utility industry began in the second half of the 19th century, as urban center became more populated and new technological advances brought improvements to modern life. Smart entrepreneurs sprang up to manufacture and supply the fuel for gaslights, which made it possible for factories to operate at night. Others sought to develop electrical systems for powering streetcars, and for an alternate source of lighting. Still others brought water to cities, and used the power of running water to create electricity.

Small companies sprang up and soon combined bought one another out. Competing technologies consolidated, so they could protect and co-market their products. Local governments took over private companies, and big cities co-opted and absorbed smaller ones.

The first real electric utility company was begun by Thomas Alva Edison. Although he didn't invent the light bulb, he developed the first commercially viable one. He also figured out how to get the electricity from the generator to the light bulb safely and efficiently. In 1882, he flipped the switch at a generating station on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan, and started feeding 110 volts of Direct Current (DC) power to 59 customers.

The names of early utility companies reflect the initial focus of their business, but also illuminates (pun intended) the way people thought about what electricity could mean in their lives.

Edison's company was called the Edison Illuminating Company. Its focus was on making light - that was the product he delivered.

An Edison competitor in lower Manhattan was the Excelsior Steam Power Company. "Excelsior" means "ever higher" - and Excelsior, having begun as a steam generating company, went into the electrical business as well. Its building still stands on Gold Street, proudly bearing its name - without "steam."

In Chicago, an early private company was called the Isolated Lighting Company - its business plan was to sell small generators that would power a single building or a small complex of buildings. It soon merged with Chicago Edison - they had licensed Edison's patented distribution system, giving them the right to use his name.

From the early days, in Los Angeles it was all about water. The early city's greatest priority was bringing water to the dry region. In the 1890s, the city took control over water rights away from a consortium of businessmen, and brought water by building an aqueduct to distant valleys. Power was a side beneft, generated hydroelectric dams at reservoirs. It has always been called the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

In western Washington, with its abundance of rain, Seattle saw it a bit differently. Seattle's early city charter directed the city to take responsibility for lighting the streets during the dark winter nights. Its public utility was first called the Department of Lighting and Waterworks. Since the early part of the 20th century, it has called itself Seattle City Light.

The early seal of City Light used images of fir trees, forest wildflowers, and the Skagit River dam.

Some companies began as gas companies and then added electrical generation to their business model. Pacific Gas and Electric in the Bay area began as a collection of small gas companies. The Cincinnati Gas and Electric Company did as well.

Other companies began as suppliers of power to streetcar systems. The American Light and Traction Company operated streetcars, gas utilities, and electrical utility in Detroit Michigan.

One company in Missouri went through a rebranding as changeable as New Coke - in 1905 calling itself the Excelsior Springs Light Power Heat and Water Company, then changing to the Water Gas and Electric Company in 1917, and then finally North Missouri Power & Light by 1926.

Los Angeles Street Light, North Cahuenga Boulevard, Hollywood.

Some companies saw their product as an elemental thing - "Light." One early magazine describes the miracle of electric incandescent light as
"pure and simple, free from burning and the decompositon of chemical bodies; a light produced by the simple excitation of the ether which is the source of all our light.... Its merits lie in its healthiness, its safety as compared with gas, and its beauty.
Light was the miracle, and many early utility company names reflect this.

Others saw it as a more practical and tangible product - "Lighting."

Unlike gas, electric light didn't gutter, emit fumes that caused headaches. Unlike oil lamps, it didn't drip or spill or smoke. It wasn't dangerous, and it burned a steady clear beam that was easier on the eyes.
Electrical companies needed customers, and they recruited them by showing them how easy it was to bring electricity into their lives. Utilities had retail stores to sell appliances, and taught people how to retrofit their homes for electricity. They even sold light bulbs, to make going electric easier. J.D. Ross, director of Seattle City Light, promoted the idea that each household should have a porch light burning at night.

Electricity was easy, not scarey. The Alabama Power Company invented a mascot to help them market electricity. Reddi Kilowatt was soon licensed and promoted electricity all over the country.

Perhaps as a variety of appliances became more popular - radios, washing machines, phonographs and the like - people realized that it wasn't all about lighting.

People became more at ease with electricity. Man had mastered the elements. But how do you market it? By the mid '20s, the emphasis in advertising and print was less about convenience and safety, and more about POWER.

Even though Reddi Kilowatt was a friendly soul, by 1931, the Alabama Power Company was using more imposing eight-foot tall muscular god-like figures to represent Power, Light and Heat on its headquarters building in Birmingham. At the summit of the building, a golden figure of Electra holds a lamp up to the sky.

Other utility buildings, including neighborhood substations like this one in Chicago, depicted electrical power as a giant, astride the city, delivering lightning bolts. This electricity stuff was pretty awesome.

This Seattle City Light year book has a different take on it - here a wild, bestial creature with bolts of electricity zapping from his fingers energizes the Smith Tower and King Street Station.

Modern man had mastered this rough beast.

During the New Deal hydroelectric projects further glamorized the story - Boulder Dam, Grand Coulee Dam, the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Citizens were asked to imagine the grandeur and might of hydroelectric power - man had harnessed the
turbulent Skagit river, tumbling through miles of granite canyons, in the service of the people....[an] inexhaustible resource for the city of Seattle as long as nature continues its water cycle from the sea to the clouds, down to earth and back to the seas.
The Skagit River dam and power generating station in the mountains north of Seattle were marketed as a tourist attraction so that:
Here in an unspoiled setting of lofty grandeur, touring visitors can see a modern achievement of engineering vision and enterprise – water power converted into needed electric power, a river controlled to reduce flood damage, lakes created to open a new recreational area.
No longer a mere convenience, by 1937, electrical power was being characterized in a City Light brochure as "a necessity of life that ranks with water and the very air we breathe.”

City Light's service center, with a big neon sign.

In the '60s, cheap electric power was touted as the key to improving our lives. The magic of nuclear power would change our world. My own Southern California home, was optimistically built to be "all-electric." Today our inefficient windows and laboring electric furnaces make it necessary for us to use sweaters and a wood fireplace to keep us warm in winter.

Electric utilities in the '70s became "Energy" companies. Their names became corporatized or shortened into all-caps acronyms, like PECO, TECO or CLECO. Even longer conventional names became shortened, like ConEd, or DWP or CG&E.

By the '90s, they assumed authoritative names that were made up to sound dynamic and, well, energetic. Entergy, Luminant, Dynergy, Cinergy.

And Enron.

In 1932, a young kid in Waukegan, Illinois wandered into a traveling carnival and stopped off to see a magician act. As Ray Bradbury described his experience:
Mr. Electrico was a fantastic creator of marvels. He sat in his electric chair every night and was electrocuted in front of all the people, young and old, of Waukegan, Illinois. When the electricity surged through his body he raised a sword and knighted all the kids sitting in the front row below his platform. I had been to see Mr. Electrico the night before. When he reached me, he pointed his sword at my head and touched my brow. The electricity rushed down the sword, inside my skull, made my hair stand up and sparks fly out of my ears. He then shouted at me, "Live forever!"
His encounter with Mr. Electrico made him start writing. Read the story here.

Ray's dad was a lineman, and looking for work. In 1934, the family moved to Los Angeles, and Ray's dad got a job with the Los Angeles Bureau of Power and Light. They lived in a rental house in Venice, right next door to the powerhouse. Electricity features prominently in Bradbury's writing.

Chris Burden's installation "Urban Light" at LACMA

Do you remember when electricity was magical and mysterious? What about the promise of new energy technology - solar and wind? Are we ready to enter a new phase? What do you think new energy companies will call themselves?

And - more importantly - will the new technology inspire a new generator of writers and artists?

Historical photos from the Seattle Municipal Archives, NYC Architectural Archives, the Library of Congress, Wikimedia, and Seattle City Light.


Gilly said...

I love the old Art Deco names and signs! Especially the maidens holding something up on, was it the Alabama Electric Co.? Lovely!

Electricity was seen as the magical cure-all for everything. have you seen those adverts for "electric treatment" for all sorts of ills where the patient is sitting in a big tub of water while a current is passed through?? Makes you wonder if they actually had any patients left after that!

unmitigated me said...

Ah, but Aunt Snow, you've missed the best part of the story! What about the wrangling between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse over the AC/DC debate? Every summer, the country's leading Edison scholar (Paul Israel from Rutgers U.) comes to our teachers' workshop, and without fail, SOMEONE will bring up Tesla. You can SEE the pain in the his eyes, because it shows Edison's (much) darker side.

Catalina Vel-DuRay said...

I love power company history too! My late grandfather was a lineman for Omaha Public Power Districtin in the bad old pre-IBEW days, and I ended up working for Seattle City Light.

If you want to know about some good old-fashioned, melodramatic scenery chewing, power struggles (if you'll pardon the pun) you should read up on the fight between City Light and Puget Sound Power & Light for control of the land that CL's Skagit Hydro is sited on, and Seattle's power franchise. There's a great book called (I think) "Building the Skagit" but the only place I've ever seen it on sale is at the City Light company store in Newhalem, Wa.

But there's also good stuff at history and lurking about on

Glennis said...

Welcome and thank you, Catalina. What a great family heritage you have - Those Seattle City Archives and History Link are great, I'm always poking around there. Now I'll spend some time on your blog, too!!

Unmitigated me - I knew about the AC/DC power struggle, but didn't want to get into it in the piece. I remember working in lower Manhattan in the '70s at a theatre where we couldn't use electronic equipment because we still had DC power!

Anonymous said...

Fascinating stuff, Aunt Snow.
I can't remember, have you done a post on Gasworks Park?