Thursday, June 20, 2013

POWER STRUGGLE Part 2 of 2 Parts

The American landscape was forever changed by the arrival of electricity in the late 1890s. What’s surprising, though, is how little it’s changed since. To a time traveler from a century ago, our cars, plans, and Blackberries would surely border on the miraculous, but the old wooden power poles that march down our streets would look perfectly familiar.

As we noted last time, America’s electrical distribution system grew out of an earlier technology--the telegraph, whose infrastructure was already largely in place by the 1860s. And while rural areas might have just one set of telegraph lines paralleling the local railroad track, by the century’s end major cities were already bristling with telegraph poles carrying stacks of ten or more crossarms and scores of cables. 

Given the rush to electrify urban areas, the basic infrastructure of the telegraph network was borrowed for electrical distribution as well, with one difference: Unlike low voltage telegraph wires (and later on telephone lines), alternating current power lines carried lethally high voltages and therefore had to be strung high above street level, on poles with heights of thirty feet, forty feet, or even more. As electrification advanced from cities into suburbs and finally into rural areas, the wooden power pole became a familiar and even welcome symbol of progress. Amazingly, this same basic infrastructure--little changed from its roots of 150 years ago--can still be found on most any rural or urban street in America. 

The splintery, weatherbeaten poles that march drunkenly down our streets are so ubiquitous that most of us no longer notice them, but they’re not invisible to everyone. Europeans, for one, stare in disbelief at the chaotic tangles of wire and wood that clutter our streets, no doubt wondering how the most advanced nation on earth could make do with an almost comically primitive-looking network of electrical distribution. 

Ironically, the very fact that the United States pioneered electrification is one reason we’re saddled with such an antiquated infrastructure. Nations that once lagged far behind the United States in electrification have since benefitted from the leapfrog effect, which bypasses first generation technologies in favor of those that have had more time to evolve. Exurban China, for example, which only began to be widely electrified after 1950, now has a modern distribution system that’s substantially underground. What systems remain overhead are carried on simple and maintenance-free concrete poles that blend in with the streetscape.

Europe was electrified only slightly later than the United States, but was served by the fact that it didn’t have America’s abundant supply of timber. Hence, European streets generally have power lines carried on concrete poles, with notably neater results. 

A century and a half have passed since Samuel Morse’s fateful decision to put his telegraph lines overhead rather than under the ground, and ever since, those notably anti-aesthetic forces of economics and expedience have largely ensured that overhead is where they’ll stay. So it’s a good thing that all those half-decayed poles, rusty transformers and tangles of wire have become invisible. To us, anyway.

Monday, June 3, 2013


Glance down pretty much any old boulevard in America and what do you see?
Aside from the usual tangle of traffic signals, signs, sidewalks, and storefronts, there’s something else that we’ve become uncannily good at overlooking: Power poles.

The United States, having been the first nation to electrify, is now ironically the last to be saddled with an antiquated infrastructure of power distribution.  So it is that European or Asian visitors stop and stare with disbelief at the almost comically disheveled phalanx of old wooden poles that march helter skelter down American streets even today. Here, in the most technically advanced nation on earth, the network of power distribution looks like some last remnant of the Wild West.

In fact, that’s precisely what it is. The astonishing modern-day clutter of “telephone poles” dates back to a fateful moment in 1844 when Samuel Morse, inventior of the telegraph, was constructing the nation’s first telegraph line between Baltimore and Washington.Ezra Cornell, later to found the eponymous university, had invented a machine to lay an underground pipe in which to string the wires--essentially, our modern concept of undergrounding utilities. Alas, condensation in the pipes and insulation failures caused problems, and it was decided to string the wires above ground on poles instead--a momentous decision whose aesthetic implications are still with us today.

Things got even more complicated after Thomas Edison invented the first practical incandescent bulb in 1879. Since the commercial value of electric lighting was moot without an electrical network to power it--which, needless to say, didn’t exist--Edison’s next brief was to find some means of distributing power. Four years later he inaugurated the world’s first electrical distribution system, which provided 110 volts of direct current to exactly 59 customers near his Pearl Street laboratory in lower Manhattan.

Shortly thereafter, industrialist George Westinghouse also turned his attention to the problem of power distribution, but took a different tack. Westinghouse dismissed Edison’s direct current system, which suffered huge efficiency losses when transmitted over the sort of distances a civic power network would require. Instead, Westinghouse chose alternating current, which used high voltages that could be transmitted with minimal power losses and then could be “stepped down”to usable voltages by transformers. In 1886, Westinghouse and his assistant William Stanley completed the first such practical AC network. 

Thus arose the “War of Currents”, a bitter feud between Edison and Westinghouse over whose system was better, and no less important, who would reap the vast commercial benefits. Edison argued that the high voltages used in AC distribution were deadly dangerous, while Westinghouse maintained that the benefits of high voltage transmission far outweighed the risks..

In 1893, the Westinghouse system was chosen to provide AC power to the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. In the following years, the company completed the first long-range AC power network, transmitting electricity from generators at Niagara Falls to Buffalo, New York, some forty miles distant. Thereafter, the fate of Edison’s DC distribution system was sealed. High voltage AC power, strung on elevated poles for safety, had won the day, and the American landscape hasn’t been the same since.

Next time: How Morse's decision forever changed the American street--and not for the better.