Thomas Edison was still tinkering with his Pearl Street Generating Plant in New York City, trying to bring it on line to illuminate the street lights of the city as he had promised his investors. In far off and rustic Wisconsin H.J. Rogers, the president of a paper mill in Appleton was fishing with a buddy, H. E. Jacobs, recently hired as a licensing agent for Western Edison Light Company of Chicago which had as yet few, if any customers.
Jacobs waxed eloquent describing Edison’s grand ambitions and the development of the New York steam driven generators. The future, he insisted, for municipal lighting and for industrial development, lay in electricity, not in the gas that was becoming the standard illuminator. This both excited and alarmed Rogers. As an industrialist the idea of cheap power to turn his saws, mills, and grinders was irresistible. But he was also the president and biggest investor in the Appleton Gas Light Company which was still in the process of connecting homes to its system. If electricity was going to make his gas lights obsolete, he had better jump on the bandwagon early.
Of course, he could use his gas to boil the water to generate the steam that would turn the generators. But Rogers had a better idea. He envisioned the fast moving Fox River which was already turning a water wheel that in turn powered the equipment in his mills via an elaborate system of overhead shafts, cams, and belts. What if those same shafts and belts were tied to an electric motor powered by one of Edison’s generators? Would it work?
It turns out that Edison had done some small scale experimentation with hydro-electric power. In theory it should work on an industrial scale.
Rogers was the kind of man who had enthusiasms and wasted no time in making them realities. He and local business buddies incorporated the Appleton Edison Electric Light Company on May 25 1882. He had Jacobs send an engineer from Chicago to explain the Edison system to the board, which decided to demonstrate its feasibility by first hooking up their own business and homes.
Two Edison Type K generators—essentially the same model being used in the Pearl Street plant, were ordered. By September they had arrived. One was installed in the pulp mill hooked directly to Rogers’s existing water wheel. A special building for the second was erected on Vulcan Street.
An attempt to get the pulp mill generator running on September 27 failed and an engineer had to be called back from Chicago to fix the problem. Then, on September 30 it was up and running. According to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, it became “the first hydro-electric central station to serve a system of private and commercial customers in North America.”
That was less than a month after Edison’s triumphant launch of the Pearl Street Station and the illumination of New York.
In November the Vulcan Street Plant went into operation.
The first buildings to be lit Rogers’s home, the Appleton Paper and Pulp Company building, and the Vulcan Paper Mill. There were problems due to the primitive nature of the Edison system. The generators were connected directly to the water wheels, but because the flow of the Fox River was not constant and no system of voltage regulation had yet been devised, the lights dimmed or intensified with the fluctuations causing bulbs to burn out. And because Edison had invented the light bulb but not the screw in socket, each burnt out bulb had to be replaced and wired directly to the circuits by an electrician. The problem was resolved by moving the generator to a lean-to off the main building and attaching to a separate water wheel which allowed for a more even load distribution
There was enough power for light generation, but not yet enough to run motors to replace the existing shaft and belt system.
Meters to record electrical usage had also not yet been invented. Customers were billed by the number of lamps wired to the system. Most left their lights burning all of time as a result because there was no incentive to reduce consumption and because turning the primitive bulbs on an off accelerated burn out.
Most dangerously, bare copper wires carried electricity to customers. Wiring in buildings was insulated by a thin layer of cotton and was fastened to walls using wood cleats. Wiring used in buildings was insulated by a thin layer of cotton and was fastened to walls using wood cleats. Fuse boxes and virtually every other accessory was built of wood. Not surprisingly this proved to be both a fire and a serious shock hazard.
In fact the Vulcan Street Plant and the Appleton Paper and Pulp Company building both burned to the ground in 1891, but the generating capacity was soon replaced.
Despite the problems, the experiment was a success. Rogers and his little local electric utility basked in national attention for their 19th Century equivalent of their 30 seconds of fame.
Eventually an exact replica of the Vulcan Street plant “... painstakingly constructed duplicating all of the building's original features” was built and opened to the public on the 50th anniversary of the pulp mill generator going on line, September 30, 1932,
Rogers’ spacious home in Appleton is now the Hearthstone Historic House Museum, and preserves one of the few surviving examples of the wiring and lighting fixtures from the primitive dawn of the electrical age. Why it never burned down is a mystery.