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.

Why Electricity Generation is Like a Dirty Joke

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.

Making the Technology Work (Sort Of)

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.

History Lost...And Found

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.

19 Comments Add a comment

capl #1 6:55 AM Tuesday, Jun 22, 2010 Reply

Good stuff, thanks as always for the interesting reads...

Anon #2 7:27 AM Tuesday, Jun 22, 2010 Reply

thanks maggie for keeping it real from S. Mipples@!!!

jacques45 #3 8:03 AM Tuesday, Jun 22, 2010 Reply

A cool article. Any pictures of the inside, even from through the windows?

mdh #4 8:15 AM Tuesday, Jun 22, 2010 Reply

Great Barrington, MA is where Stanley invented the electrical transformer. These were first used in GB to step the power from the hydro-station there up to high voltage for transmission via Alternating Current to step-down transformers near the streetlights downtown.

Wisconsin may have had the first, but G.B. MA had the first one built for the average people on the street (not just to keep the factories and the rich-folks homes lit), and also the first modern distribution system.

Not to diminish the awesomeness of what these folks in WI did, at all. Awesome story Maggie. Sounds like an awesome pilgrimage.

mdh #5 8:24 AM Tuesday, Jun 22, 2010 Reply

What we call "electric service" is just the movement of electrons around a closed loop of wire.

Another small pedantic note: Electrons moving in one direction is how DC -direct current-, which was phased out (sorry for the pun), works.

AC -alternating current-, the system championed by Tesla and the one we use for utility power transmission, moves the electrons back and then forth, then back and forth (maybe 60 times a second?) on that same closed wire.

Still, awesome article, I'm trying not to detract from it at all.

Beanolini #6 8:41 AM Tuesday, Jun 22, 2010 Reply
The world's first hydroelectric power plant

Well, that kind of depends on what you mean by 'power plant'. Cragside (in Northumberland, UK) had hydroelectric power in 1868, and parts of the system are still working today. But no, it wasn't centralized power, it just supplied the one house.

Cragside is fantastic, it was built by a 19th century international arms dealer who just had to have all the latest gadgets (electric light! water-powered lifts! a personal observatory!)- it's a stmpnk dream.

Big Daddy #7 8:52 AM Tuesday, Jun 22, 2010 Reply

Small grammar error towards the end you may want to know about:

"He poured buckets of money the utility (and the electrically lit mansion he used as advertisement)"

should read

"He poured buckets of money into the utility..."

Otherwise, a great read. Amazing how that little shack is just forgotten, isn't it?

Anon #8 9:35 AM Tuesday, Jun 22, 2010 Reply

Today, I am not legally allowed to put a waterwheel in my river and make power. It doesn't matter that my run-of-the river poncelet wheel (which, I hasten to add, does not actually exist, you need not send any jack booted federales to check, really) is less environmentally harmful than the activities of the state, county, fedguv, and their favored industries in the same waters.

pencilbox #9 10:02 AM Tuesday, Jun 22, 2010 Reply


It's hard to imagine that from these humble beginnings rose the Bureau of Reclamation, a division of the government as monstrously successful at building dams as they were terrible at planning them.

For anyone interested in the story of hydropower in America, and its brutal politics, I can't recommend enough the book Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner. What sounds like a dry read (sorry, couldn't help myself) is actually an incredible tale of manifest destiny, religion, avarice, and unbridled consumption. In other words, the story of America itself.

The 4 part PBS special does the book an injustice, but it used to come with the movie "Chinatown" included :-)

Bilsko #10 11:11 AM Tuesday, Jun 22, 2010 Reply

Great Post - Reading it, I was reminded of a few passages from this book:
Edison, His Life and Inventions by Frank Lewis Dyer and Thomas Commerford Martin

Link: http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/820

Chapters 15,16, & 17 are good places to look. The book is from 1910 (roughly) so the erudite language and the proximity to when Edison & Co. were actually doing the things described in the book make for some fun reading.

I work in energy myslef (developing small-scale community microgrids) and was surpised to see how certain things haven't changed in the 140 or so years since Edison:
Undaunted by the attitude of doubt and the predictions of impossibility, Edison had pushed on until he was now able to realize all his ideas as to the establishment of a central station in the work that culminated in New York City in 1882. After he had conceived the broad plan, his ambition was to create the initial plant on Manhattan Island, where it would be convenient of access for watching its operation, and where the demonstration of its practicability would have influence in financial circles. The first intention was to cover a district extending from Canal Street on the north to Wall Street on the south; but Edison soon realized that this territory was too extensive for the initial experiment, and he decided finally upon the district included between Wall, Nassau, Spruce, and Ferry streets, Peck Slip and the East River, an area nearly a square mile in extent.

One of the preliminary steps taken to enable him to figure on such a station and system was to have men go through this district on various days and note the number of gas jets burning at each hour up to two or three o'clock in the morning. The next step was to divide the region into a number of sub-districts and institute a house-to-house canvass to ascertain precisely the data and conditions pertinent to the project. When the canvass was over, Edison knew exactly how many gas jets there were in every building in the entire district, the average hours of burning, and the cost of light; also every consumer of power, and the quantity used; every hoistway to which an electric motor could be applied; and other details too numerous to mention, such as related to the gas itself, the satisfaction of the customers, and the limitations of day and night demand. All this information was embodied graphically in large maps of the district, by annotations in colored inks; and Edison thus could study the question with every detail before him. Such a reconnaissance, like that of a coming field of battle, was invaluable, and may help give a further idea of the man's inveterate
care for the minutiae of things.

johnwasik #11 11:59 AM Tuesday, Jun 22, 2010 Reply

Having researched this subject extensively for my book "The Merchant of Power: Samuel Insull, Thomas Edison and the Creation of the Modern Metropolis," this piece brought a smile to my face. The Appleton plant, like most early Edison designs, was horribly inefficient. When Edison had first constructed the Pearl Street station in Manhattan, he had perennial problems with conduits leaking current and shocking horses in the streets. He insulated with a tar-like substance that was less than optimal. Sensing that his plant could be improved, Edison bet Nicola Tesla $50,000 that Tesla couldn't improve its design in a short period of time. Being the hard-working genius that he was, Tesla succeeded, although Edison brushed him off, claiming the bet was "a joke." Enraged, Tesla quit and dug ditches or a while, later walking into George Westinghouse's office and handing over his alternating current technology for a fat royalty contract. After Westinghouse displayed Tesla's efficient AC power to the world at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, AC pretty much became the standard operating system, leaving Edison's DC plants a footnote in history. I think we'd like to see more entrepreneurs like Rogers pairing up with engineers like Tesla to make clean energy a large-scale reality. Great piece and a fun read!

MrWoods #12 12:25 PM Tuesday, Jun 22, 2010 Reply
there were precious few engineers West of Mississippi who knew how to make one run.

The more pertinent fact would be how many engineers there are East of the Mississippi - the entire state of Wisconsin is East of the Mississippi (and due North of Mississippi the state).

Ok I'm done being a pedant, great History!

Anon #13 2:12 PM Tuesday, Jun 22, 2010 Reply

This story is excellent. Looking for the shorted wire gets a smile! This direct current system in Appleton was a baby that demonstrated the glories and the opportunities of the future for portable form of energy. The subsequent introduction of Geo. Westinghouse's alternating current, and the magnification by Nickoli Tessla's multi-phasing provided the ability to expand its uses.
Such enable the seeds for commerce and wealth of the nation.
= David Weston

Anon #14 2:43 PM Tuesday, Jun 22, 2010 Reply

Appleton, like all of Wisconsin, is east of the Mississippi River.

soubriquet replied to comment from Beanolini #15 3:53 PM Tuesday, Jun 22, 2010 Reply

Hear hear, Beanolini, Armstrong did it first, at Cragside, Morpeth, Northumberland, England.
The first hydro-electric generator was actually installed there in 1870, though in 1868, the house already featured numerous powered gadgets, driven by direct hydraulic power.

Armstrong, quite rightly, saw that for many applications, the power of water need not be turned into electricity to do useful work, and he was the man who devised the hydraulic engines which lifted the bascules of Tower Bridge in London.


sailhelper #16 3:58 PM Tuesday, Jun 22, 2010 Reply

In a number of ways, Appleton was actually at the leading edge of technology and education during the latter half of the 19th century. My great-great-grandmother earned a Masters Degree from Lawrence College as a very young woman. An experimental school based on the ideas of David Starr Jordan (who was at Lawrence College and was later the President of Stanford) was founded there. Appleton was not only the home of the first hydroelectric plant but also the home of the first streetcar... as well as early electric lights and telephones.

I've never been there myself... but can't help but wonder what cutting edge places of the 21st century will be the object of teasing in 130 years.

someToast #17 9:47 PM Tuesday, Jun 22, 2010 Reply

Appleton's a little south and west of Green Bay. ; )

smgrady #18 6:31 AM Wednesday, Jun 23, 2010 Reply

my hometown!!! This story takes place only a little over a mile from where I grew up, and I knew so little of it. Great stuff. Every 4th grader from Jefferson Elementary goes on a field-trip to the Hearthstone House, but the focus is on how different life was back then [for the ultra rich], not the electricity (apart from "we did something first!"). Though 24 years ago, I do remember hearing that the only way the lady of that house would deign to live in Appleton at the time was if her husband would 'modernize' their home.

Anon #19 9:29 AM Wednesday, Jun 23, 2010 Reply

I go to school at Lawrence University, easily a two-minute walk from that power plant replica. It's pretty sweet that such an unimposing residential area would have such advanced, self-motivated technological infrastructure.

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