Woman recalls the hydroelectric power plant her father built in 1922

Before the Lights Go Out is Maggie's new book about how our current energy systems work, and how we'll have to change them in the future. It comes out April 10th and is available for pre-order (in print or e-book) now. Over the next couple of months, Maggie will be posting some energy-related stories based on things she learned while researching the book. This is one of them.

One of the things I loved about researching my book on the future of energy was getting the opportunity to delve a little into the history of electricity. Although I'd heard plenty about the Tesla vs. Edison wars—the "great men doing important things" side of the story—I was pretty unfamiliar with the impact their inventions had on average people, and how those people responded and adapted to changing technology.

What I found in my research was fascinating. I spent a lot of time in the archives at the Wisconsin Historical Society, turning up letters and documents that introduced me to a perspective on history I'd not previously known. I learned about the skepticism and fear that surrounded electricity in the 19th and early 20th century. I found out that many, many of the early electric utilities went bankrupt—unable to make enough money selling electricity to cover the costs of building the expensive systems to produce and distribute it. I learned that, outside the hands of a privileged few geniuses, electric infrastructure and generation was a slapdash affair, focused more on quick, cheap construction than reliable operation—a reality that still affects the way our grid works today.

Last week, I spoke about some of this history, and its impact on our future, at the University of Minnesota. (You can watch a recording of that speech online.) Afterwards, Christopher Mayr, director of development at the U's Institute on the Environment, told me about the video I've posted here. In it, Doris Duborg Hughes, a lifelong Wisconsinite, talks about her father, farmer Rudolph Duborg, and the hydroelectric power plant he and his brother built on Wisconsin's Crawfish River in 1922.

This is a great story about Makers tinkering with "crazy" ideas at a time when very few people knew anything about electricity, and when getting electricity on a farm was a near impossibility. By the 1920s, some electric utilities were beginning to turn a profit ... but only in cities, where population density meant you could spread the cost of infrastructure over a lot of customers. Having electricity on the farm meant building the infrastructure yourself, something few people had the drive (and money) to manage.

Doris Hughes' earliest memories involve her family putting up the men who came to wire the farmhouse. She was a child when the system went in, and that's part of what I like about this story. It's very clearly coming through the filter of childhood. Because of that, we get details like Hughes remembering that she wasn't supposed to turn lights off in the house, during the day or at night, because she was told that doing so might break the system.

Also fascinating: Henry Ford sent men to inspect the Duborg hydroelectric plant, apparently as part of research into a manufacturing scheme very different from the factory system Ford is known for today. In the late 'teens and early '20s, Ford was convinced that he could harness water power to bring electricity to farms, then split the elements of automobile construction among a number of electrified farms in a geographic region. The result (he hoped): More employment in rural communities and an increase in living standards. You can learn a little more about this at the end of the video.

Video Link


  1. Wow – the little hook for Ford’s vision of a decentralized manufacturing setup is really intriguing.  I wonder if the idea was ever implemented at all ( in the context of distributed power systems, I mean)

      1. Ford had some grand schemes for distributing his labor, the main problem with them being that he expected people to voluntarily sacrifice to adapt to his weird vision of a very non-industrial industrialized future.  He wanted to control everything from soup-to-nuts, which is how Fordlandia came to be.  
        Greg Grandin’s book on the subject is a fascinating study, as it discusses a lot of Ford’s vision for America and the production line.  Ford shared a lot in common with Disney, for example: he was very socially forward when it suited him and tyrannical when it didn’t.

        1. Ah, Tommy wasn’t as big on the “make a buck, rule the world thing” as Ford.  Can’t think of an instance of TJ ordering plant guards to open fire on picketing workers.  Maybe feudalism with a conscience. 

  2. My grandfather told tales about when the “rich” family in town (a day’s ride north from Hot Springs, AR)  got carbide gas (acetylene) lighting installed. People came from miles around by horse or mule to see the amazing new lighting progress.   
    When electrification finally reached that neck of the woods in the late ’30s/early ’40s people were concerned about it ‘leaking’ out of empty light sockets.

    1. I saw an old hardware store that still had the carbide light fixtures in place with tiny ceramic burners.  The gas was generated in a central tank, like a miners lamp, and then sent through the house in pipes. I’d be little concerned that a tank of acetylene could detonate with considerable force.

  3. I think the ‘don’t turn the lights off’ thing comes from older style light bulbs, which were best left on for longer life. Even modern incandescent bulbs point of failure is when you when turn them on.  CFL bulbs will also lose life span each time they’re cycled.

    1. It’s not the light bulbs. It’s because of the design of the generating plant. Basically, the generator must always have an electrical load to work against so it doesn’t over-speed. If a fuse were to blow and the entire system get disconnected from the generator thus removing the load, it would be very important for the water flow to the turbine to shut down immediately. But they may have accepted some extra risk just to keep the system simple. It would be nice to know more about what kind of control devices were put in at this power plant. As for the lifespan of old bulbs, the same being true for newer – what kills a bulb is thermal expansion of the filament itself every time it is turned on. A complete heat stress cycle will include being turned off. Then the filament on cooling, will contract. This is very similar to bending a piece of metal back & forth until it breaks except that bending in one direction will also include getting the metal a lot hotter which adds to the stress. That extra stress is why the bulb will fail on being turned on, instead of sometimes failing when turned off.

  4. @Offlogic
    Reading your comment on your grandfather’s recolections reminded me of one my grandfather told me.My family is from Argentina – Gigena: http://g.co/maps/ntw34  — and back in the 40s & 50s, the town had a single generating plant near the train tracks. I imagine it was just a diesel-fired engine or a very basic steam setup with some type of flywheel (I image something like these, only a bit smaller: http://www.practicalmachinist.com/vb/antique-machinery-history/steam-engine-flywheels-112618/ )Apparently one night the guy who was supposed to keep an eye on things didn’t show up or was drunk or something, because as my grandfather tells it, the flywheel (a huge piece of iron) ended up being projected up out of the building, and landing in someone’s yard a good distance away.

  5. “Unfortunately, this video is not available in Germany because it may contain music for which GEMA has not granted the respective music rights.”

    Thank you GEMA, its fantastic how you make yourself friends!

  6. First:  Pure awesomesauce.  This is what you-tube was made for.  Second.  WTF!  I live in Germany and I am not allowed to watch this video because of 10 seconds of (probably public domain) music?!  After loggin in via a VPN I was able to watch this wonderful clip.  However, despite the feel-good recording of… the ‘songs of the day, the old songs’– I am left crushed.  In what world should this amazing story of true pioners of maker spirt, people that made the smallest power plant of it’s time, be locked out.. and all due to f@ü€king BS music rights ‘infringement’?!  BLAM say I.

    Still, for a brief moment, I felt as if I was sitting in the room with one of the coolest grandmas ever.  Her mind was sharp and I can only thank the author for sharing.

  7. Next door to a friends place is an old dam that was built before his grandfather bought their property in 1948.  The neighbor there had installed a tiny power generator which was the very first source of electricity in the entire county(Mason county, Washington State). It only powered one household, which was also built with poured concrete walls & floor for the basement level, this back when everyone else were living in log cabins. The house is still standing and still in very good condition. But the power plant is long gone. There was also a self-powered water pump to supply water to the fields for cattle and irrigation. The pump is still there, but no longer working. The dome on top is broken, so it’s not likely to ever get fixed. My friends grandparents  were there before the post office, they got PO Box number one the very day the post office opened, and still have it in their name.

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