Electric Light By Water

October 6, 2015

September marked the anniversary of the Appleton Edison Power Plant, the first Edison hydroelectric central station and predecessor to the landmark Vulcan Street Plant in Wisconsin.

Built on the Fox River in Appleton, WI, and put into operation Sept. 30, 1882, the Appleton Edison Electric Light Company created what is considered by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers to be the first hydroelectric plant to serve a system of private and commercial customers in North America.

After his public exhibition of the incandescent lamp, Thomas Edison concentrated on developing a complete system of electric generation and distribution that would turn the light bulb into a commercially viable business. To achieve this, he designed an entire electrical system modeled after the gas-lighting systems used in large cities.

In 1882, upon learning about Edison’s advances in electric light technology and electric generators and seeing an investment opportunity, Henry J. Rogers, president of the Appleton Paper and Pulp Co. and of the Appleton Gas Light Co., brought together investors to create the Appleton Edison Electric Light Company.
These pioneers had no predecessors in the U.S. as the Edison system of producing light from water-powered generators had only been demonstrated in exhibitions, and its application to commercial service had not been tested.

The world’s first attempt at a public hydroelectric power supply system for electric illumination began operation in Godalming, Surrey, England in 1881. However, the water power proved to be inadequate and too variable for reliability. The system was supplemented with steam, and a hybrid system was operated until 1884 when the town reverted to gas lighting.

In July 1882, an engineer representing Western Edison Light Company of Chicago, the company responsible for the licensing of Edison lighting plants in Wisconsin, visited Appleton to explain the details of Edison’s system. After this meeting, two Edison “K” type dynamos (generators) were ordered to test the viability of hydroelectric lighting. A generator was situated in the beater room of the Appleton Paper and Pulp Company and began successful operation Sept. 30, 1882, only 26 days after Edison began to operate his own steam-driven Pearl Street Plant in New York.

The first buildings to be illuminated were the Appleton Paper and Pulp Company building, the Vulcan Paper Mill and Henry Rogers’ home, which were all connected to a direct current generator. The generator was capable of lighting 250 16-candle power lamps, each equivalent to 50 watts. The generator operated at 110 volts and was driven through gears and belts by a waterwheel operating under a ten-foot fall of water.

Because the waterwheel had a primary function of driving paper-mill beaters, the generator ran irregularly, causing the lights to variably dim or brighten. This resulted in excessive voltage which would often burn out the lamps. After a few weeks this was alleviated by moving the generator to an outbuilding where it was attached to a separate waterwheel. Within two months, a third site, the Vulcan Hydroelectric Central Station began to operate, lighting the blast furnace, a flax mill, a woolen mill, the Patten Paper Company Mill and nearby residences.

The Vulcan Street Plant was unique in linking a sophisticated water-supply system, consisting of flumes, wooden penstocks, and head-gate controls installed to regulate the water pressure powering the plant’s turbines. As the Edison generating systems continued to develop, they successfully demonstrated the practical application of water power in generating electrical power.

The Appleton Edison Electric Light Company was the precursor of many projects to follow in which civil, mechanical, and electrical engineers cooperated to provide hydroelectric power for the United States. By 1886, there were 45 hydroelectric power plants in the U.S. and Canada. By 1889, there were 200 in the U.S. alone. At the beginning of the 20th century, many small hydroelectric power plants were being constructed by commercial companies in mountains near metropolitan areas. By the time the Federal Power Act was enacted into law in 1920, 40 percent of the power produced in the United States was hydroelectric.

The original Vulcan Street Plant burned down in 1891, but a working replica was built in 1932 based on the original engineering drawings. The site was dedicated as an ASCE National Historic Engineering Landmark, jointly designated with ASME and IEEE, on Sept. 15, 1977.

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