Centralized electric power entered the world in 1882. The first plant, a temporary test case, opened in London that January. By the fourth of September, New York City was home to a permanent version. Twenty-six days later, the third centralized electric plant—and the first hydroelectric plant in the world—began operations. It was in Appleton, Wisconsin.
Yes, Appleton, Wisconsin. London. New York. Appleton. Yes, seriously. And the story actually gets a bit weirder. See, London and New York? Those plants were the direct work of Thomas A. Edison—babies he guided into the world by the sweat of his brow and the dinosaur-like stomping of his competitors. Appleton was just a licensee, the brainchild of a group of random businessmen who bought a couple of Edison generators and built a power plant around them. It was the Waiting for Guffman of early electricity, and it came very close to beating Edison, himself, to the punch.
Appleton sits on the Fox River, a little south and east of Green Bay, part of a chain of small cities that ring Lake Winnebago. Back in 1882, Appleton's location wasn't just about great views or good fishing. Water was the highway. It was the power source that ran factories. The Fox River made Appleton rich. Or, anyway, some people in Appleton. Ok, some guys. Ok, some white guys with hilarious facial hair.
Henry Rogers, for instance. Sporting a fabulous mustache and a penchant for going by "H.J.", Rogers was basically one dollar-sign emblazoned pot belly away from being That Guy in late 19th-century political cartoons. To the Appleton Post and the Appleton Chronicle, he was one of "our Capitalists," the men of action who got things done. Who he had over for supper was considered legitimate news. When H.J. Rogers took a trip to Chicago, it made both papers.
In 1882, he really set the Appleton media on fire. That July, Rogers went fishing with H.E. Jacobs, a salesman who worked for the Western Edison Light Company, lining up licensees for Edison's electric lighting system.
Let's put this story in perspective: Rogers already owned Appleton's gas lighting utility. He had never seen an electric light. And while Edison had been selling one-off, on-site generators for a while, the idea of a centralized electric utility hadn't yet been demonstrated in the United States and there were precious few engineers West of Mississippi who knew how to make one run.
And yet, Henry Rogers walked away from that fishing trip the proud owner of all rights to Edison technology in the entire Fox River Valley. I don't know much about this H.E. Jacobs, but he was a hell of a salesman.
There's a simple experiment that helps explain the basics of electricity generation. Take a bar magnet and slide it quickly in and out of a coil of copper wire. Every time you do this, you'll produce a small electric current. (And a large potential for immature jokes.) The physical tango of a conductive metal moving through a magnetic field produces electricity. That conversion from physical to electrical is what generators are all about.
When H.J. Rogers convinced his buddies to buy in on electric light, he was essentially betting his fortune on a larger, better-engineered version of that science museum "please touch" exhibit. Like the bar magnet and copper coil, the Edison K-model dynamos Rogers bought produced electricity by moving a conductor through a magnetic field. In this case, the Fox River turned a water wheel, which moved a system of gears, which spun a cylinder of conductive metal between six tall magnets. (The magnets' resemblance to legs earned the system the nickname "Long-legged Mary Ann", which is what passed for an immature joke in the 1880s.)
The interaction of magnets and metal doesn't actually "generate" anything from scratch. Instead, the magnetic field simply forces electrons to move in one direction. You know how an atom is set up—central nucleus surrounded by a cloud of electrons. In conductive metals, the electrons aren't tied down to any one atom. Instead, they mingle, forming something akin a river of electrons in which atoms float like buoys.
The magnetic field makes the electron "river" flow along, from one buoy to another. What we call "electric service" is just the movement of electrons around a closed loop of wire. On one end is the generator. At the other is your house.
This all sounds relatively simple, but at the time it was high technology that not even the ostensible experts totally grasped. In New York City, Thomas Edison built up a working central system by inventing parts of said system as he went along—from the voltage regulators that made sure electrons were pushed along by a steady, predictable amount of force, to the meters that allowed you to, you know, actually charge customers.
Rogers' Appleton team wanted to beat Edison to the first central system in the United States. But, without an Edison of their own, they couldn't hope to compete on a technological basis. There's an old saying, "A project can be good, it can be cheap, or it can be fast. You get to pick two." The Appleton Capitalists, by all accounts, went with cheap and fast.
"Two and a half months after Jacobs had first talked to Rogers about it, the first hydroelectric central station in the world was in business," wrote Forrest McDonald in "Let There Be Light", his 1957 book on the history of electric utilities in Wisconsin. "But this speed was accomplished partly by the omission of several of the safety and reliability features of the complete Edison system and partly by the use of makeshift equipment."
Hilarity, as they say, ensued.
Start with the water wheel itself. To save time and money, Rogers initially opted to use a dynamo powered by the same water wheel that ran the pulp beaters on his paper mill. The problem: Power to the dynamo fluctuated based on how hard the mill was running. The resulting surges burnt out lightbulbs, which cost—in 2009 equivalency—$35 a pop. Given that H.J. Rogers, himself, was the utility's first three customers—by way of his two paper mills and his house—that problem was fixed pretty quickly. By November 1882, the electric utility had its own building and water wheel at Vulcan Street.
The control system installed in Appleton in 1888. Courtesy: Wisc. Historical Society
But there were still no voltmeters. Edison had invented them, but Appleton wouldn't buy any for another six years. Instead, they had a guy. A guy who sat in the utility building—shack, really—with the dynamos and stared at a lightbulb. Based on the brightness of the bulb, he decided whether the voltage was too high, too low or just right. Apparently, the Goldilocks method didn't cause any serious problems, as long as the guy had good eyesight.
Staff were also the solution to Appleton's wiring problem. Wires connecting customers to the generator, and lights to each other, were usually just wrapped in paper or cloth—if they were insulated at all. They shorted out if you looked at them wrong, and, apparently, there were a lot of dirty looks going around. In 1922, A.C. Langstadt, a retired engineer from the Appleton utility's early days, remembered having to repeatedly stop work and shut down the power plant for anywhere between an hour and a day, while all the utility employees went from house to house playing "Hunt the Shorted Wire".
Ironically, these shortcuts still didn't get Appleton up and running before Edison's New York plant. It was still the start of something, though. When the lights at H.J. Rogers' mansion glowed for the first time on the night of September 30, 1882, the occasion marked both the genesis of what would someday be called renewable electricity, and a watershed moment wherein electric power became real to the skeptics—something possible all across the country, not just in Thomas Edison's laboratories.
Back in April, I went on a bit of a pilgrimage to see this landmark for myself. The original Vulcan Street Power Plant is long since gone, but in 1932, the city built a replica, on the same spot, complete with a model generator. It was rededicated as a National Historic Engineering Landmark in 1977. Or so I'd read.
I started looking for it at H.J. Rogers' mansion, now a museum open to the public.
"I think it's somewhere down in the river bottom," the director told me. "I'm not really sure. You should ask at the Paper Mill Museum down there."
So I did. And the staff at the Paper Mill Museum looked at me as though a pack of chinchillas had just climbed out of my ear and rappelled down my shoulder. They'd never heard of any such thing. They directed me to a nearby Italian restaurant, housed in a former power plant. It was large and brick and definitely not the right building.
I tried the county historical society museum. Again, my chinchilla problem seemed to be acting up.
By now, I was wondering whether I'd imagined the whole thing. A Google map provided by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers was set to a hospital far from the river. An old souvenir bulletin from 1977 sent me to a mid-century power station that had since been turned into office space. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers finally gave me an address that made sense—530 S. Vulcan Street.
On an island in the middle of the Fox River, down a pockmarked street that ran into the parking lot of a paper factory, I found the Vulcan Street Power Plant—a little, square box of a building, up on stilts at the water's edge, its once-white paint peeling away from the rotting wood. It had snowed the night before, and I climbed the shaky front steps worried that the accumulation might be hiding a hole in the decking. The front door was locked, but I could peer through the broken windows and see a Long-Legged Mary Ann enthroned on a dias. The all-important, voltage-regulating lightbulb was intact, hanging from the moss-caked wood roof.
It would be a lie to say that this ending didn't make a bit of sense. When the city of Appleton built the replica, they thought—thanks to erroneous dates in a memoir published by one of Edison's engineers—that Vulcan Street had been the first centralized power plant in the whole world. The let down must have been a bitch.
And, while electricity as a whole has obviously been successful, the investment didn't end well for H.J. Rogers. He poured buckets of money the utility (and the electrically lit mansion he used as advertisement), and never made a cent back. By 1884, he was writing of his accounts being always overdrawn. He de-invested and left Appleton entirely within a few years. The utility business, itself, didn't fare much better. After the first three years, investors had plopped down the equivalent of more than $500,000, and found they owned a company worth less. They never got any dividends. By 1896, the utility was bankrupt. The same thing happened to most of the early adopters of centralized electricity, who didn't anticipate the challenges of running a business with such huge upfront infrastructure costs. The Vulcan Street replica memorializes long-term success, but it's also something of a monument to immediate, belly-up failure.
I teetered back to the ground and stood for a minute in the cold. A couple passed by, walking their dog along the river. They didn't so much as glance at the crumbling relic. I walked back to my car and drove away.