Monday, September 30, 2013

First Electricity by a Dam Site

A cut-away sketch of the Vulcan Street Plant in Appleton.  A belt system connects the generator fo the unseen water wheel in the Fox River.  The assertion that Appleton was the first to sell lighting from a central station was based on the narrow claim of selling directly to customers.  Edison's New York plant, opened weeks earlier, only had a contract for street lighting.

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.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Wish a Happy Birthday to the Regular Army

First Regular Army uniforms resembled these late Continental Army togs of 1784.

If asked about the origin of the United States Army, most folks, if they have a clue, would point to the American Revolution.  On June 14, 1775, the Second Continental Congress created the Continental Army and the next day unanimously elected George Washington commanding general.  Volunteer units from several colonies already besieging Boston alongside militia units were mustered as the First Regiment of the Line.  Washington soon joined the troops and the battle war was on as a seriously united effort.
All of that, of course, is true.  But almost as soon as the war ended the Continental Army was demobilized and essentially disbanded by order of General Washington on May 12, 1783 after Congress, now under the Articles of Confederation, rejected his appeal for a small standing army to be placed under the command of General Henry Knox.  Congress was deeply fearful that a standing army would lead inevitably to monarch or dictatorship—and more than a few feared that the popular Washington might use it to have himself made king.
One hundred artillerymen and 500 infantry were kept on the payroll.  The artillery company was stationed at West Point, essentially security guards for the large arsenal there.  The infantrymen were scattered in small numbers at forts and outposts across the long western frontier and the border with British Canada.
Those infantrymen were totally unable to face the challenge of continuing warfare on the frontier by native tribes still allied to the British.  The plight of settlers west of the Alleganys and south of the Ohio was soon desperate.
And this tiny Federal force was not even regularized, it operated out of necessity but with no legal foundation.
In June of 1784 Congress formally rejected Washington’s scaled back plans for a 700 man army.  On May 12 they discharged all of the troops except for 25 caretakers at Fort Pitt and 55 at West Point.  On June 14 of that year Congress reluctantly agreed to raise a force of 700 men for one year’s duty on the frontier under the command of a Lt. Colonel.
On September 29, 1784 the War Department formally issued the order creating what many considered just a temporary resurrection of the Continental Army.  Four companies of infantry and two of artillery dubbed the First American Regiment came under the command of Colonel Josiah Harmar of Pennsylvania. 
The creation of the First Regiment is considered the true birthday of the Regular US Army.
The idea that a tiny regular army supplemented with local militia and, if need be short term musters of Volunteer Regiments would be enough to keep a lid on the powder keg on the frontier was ludicrous.
Some of the bloodiest, most intense, and widest ranging Indian warfare in American history continued for years on the frontier.  On November 4, 1791 a large force of volunteers, militia, and some regular companies under General Arthur St. Clare were routed and nearly massacred by native forces of the Western Confederation near Fort Recovery in Ohio.
This disaster finally encouraged Congress to expand and reorganize the Army.  With the approval of  President Washington and his Secretary of War Knox, the Legion of the United States was created with General (Mad) Anthony Wayne in command.  It was organized into four sub legions, two of which were converted from the First and Second Regiments, and two more to be recruited and trained. 
After extensive training in 1792 and ’93 the Legion took to the field for operations against the Western Confederacy south of the Ohio.  The large, disciplined force, with the assistance of by now veteran militia, was successful in a campaign in Kentucky that drove most of the hostiles north of the river. 
Wayne and the Legion pursued the tribes into their home territory north of the river, burning several principle towns and finally decisively defeating them at the Battle of Fallen Timbers on August 4, 1794.
Later that year the Whiskey Rebellion broke out in Western Pennsylvania.  To suppress it Washington, at the urging of his closest rival, Alexander Hamilton raised the largest army the new nation had ever put into the field, over 12,000 troops, mostly federalized militia including for the first time, draftees, and a handful of Legion troops.  He personally took to the field to command the force, which made quick, and largely bloodless, work of suppressing the rebellion.
With the frontier seemingly secured, the Legion was disbanded in 1796 and the reduced Army was reorganized into regiments the following year.  Some historians take this as the real origin of the Regular Army, but since the First and Second regiments were reconstituted, most take the 1784 date.
The new Army was placed under the command of General James Wilkerson, an officer with a checkered reputation for rascality, but a splendid battle record in the Revolution and under Wayne at Fallen Timbers—despite the fact that as a double agent for the Spanish in New Orleans he may have leaked some of the Legion's operational plans to British agents active with the Indians).
After retirement Washington was recalled to command the Army in 1798 by President John Adams as a possible war with France loomed.  A large force was raised, mostly Volunteers with regular Army regiments.  Washington helped plan the formation and logistics, but left operational command to his favorite Hamilton who expected to take the field in command.  Hamilton had grandiose dreams of martial glory, including the conquest of Louisiana. 
Washington died at home in Mt. Vernon still nominally in command on March 1, 1799.  The crisis with France passed, much to Adams’s relief and to the disappointment of Hamilton.  The Volunteer Army was disbanded and the Regular Army shrunken. 
Wilkerson was restored to command and embarked on more plots with the Spanish and later with disgraced Vice President Aaron Burr who planned a filibustering campaign to either capture Texas from the Spanish or perhaps create a break away nation west of the Appalachians. At the last moment the Commanding general betrayed Burr, but that is another story.
The Regular Army remained under manned and scattered in coastal defense fortifications and along the frontier.  It was totally unprepared for the War of 1812...yet another story.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Crap!—Flushing a Myth

A Thomas Crapper toilet.

As a blogger who covers historical events and personages both great and small, it is my sad duty to occasionally disabuse you of your most cherished illusions.
 Like this one:  The standard flush toilet was invented by Sir Thomas Crapper in the Britain in the 19th Century, lending his name to the product of human solid waste disposal on account of his name being emblazoned on his products.
Wrong on two or three major counts, but containing the kernel of truth. 
On the other hand the self-appointed myth busters who claim that the whole thing is a lie and that there never was a Thomas Crapper are also wrong.
The very real Thomas Crapper was baptized on September 28, 1836 in Thorne, Yorkshire. The exact date of his birth is unknown, but babies were typically christened about two weeks after birth.  He was apprenticed to his older brother George as plumber. After  completing his training  and spending three years as a journeyman, he set up his own first shop near his brothers Chelsea establishment in West London in 1861.
In addition to plumbing services Crapper advertised himself as a sanitary engineer and a brass foundry man.  He began manufacturing plumbing fixtures and obtained several patents that improved the already existing flush toilet.
The ancient Romans had continuously flushing toilets in their elaborate baths and in villas of the extremely wealthy.  The Dark Ages, however, had pretty well wiped out memory of them. 
Elizabethan courtier Sir John Harington was credited with a developing a flush toilet called The Ajax around 1596 which had a water shut off device.  The clever devise became the object of political controversy when Harington wrote a book about it, A New Discourse upon a Stale Subject: The Metamorphosis of Ajax in which he also satirized one of the Queen’s favorites resulting his banishment from court and the languishing of his invention.
Alexander Cumming obtained a patent on an improved flush toilet in 1775.  In 1778 Joseph Bramah obtained a patent on an improvement that replaced Cumming’s slide valve at the bottom of the tank with the familiar flap valve still seen in most toilets. By the late 18th Century water closets, as they were called, were being manufactured and installed in the homes of the wealthy.
Edward Jennings got another patent for further improvements on the flush toilet in 1851.  Thus when Thomas Crapper began producing and marketing his own water closets, he was joining an already established line of business.
In the 1880’s Crapper got the distinction of having Royal Warrants when he won a contract to install several Thomas Crapper & Company water closets in the country seat of Prince Edward.  He also supplied Edward as king and his successor, George IV.  The prestige boosted the sales of his appliances.
But Crapper did hold several patents, including two for key improvements.  The Silent Valveless Water Waste Preventer was actually invented by Albert Giblin 1898 who was either an employee of Crapper or from whom the manufacturer obtained a license.  Crapper also held a patent, probably invented by his nephew on the ballcock or float valve that automatically closed the flap valve of the supply tank when the siphon filled it with water.
Taken together, these improvements made the familiar flush toilet that can still be seen and used throughout Britain—an over-head, wall mounted reservoir tank whose flush mechanism is engaged by a pull chain releasing water through a pipe into the bowl below.  These were the models were proudly emblazoned with the badge of Thomas Crapper & Sons.
Thomas retired in 1904 and died in 1910.  He was a respected businessman but was never knighted.  The company passed into the hands of his brother and nephew.  Under a succession of owners it continued to produce Thomas Crapper toilets until 1966.
The legend that World War I Doughboys popularized the term crap for excrement based on seeing Crapper’s name on their facilities make so much sense that it is hard to deny.  But entomologists trace the use of the term as far back as the 1840’s when it first appeared in print.  It was probably in casual slang usage long before that.  Experts believe that it derives from the Old Dutch and German krappe for a “vile and inedible fish” and the Middle English crappy.  Still, it is hard to believe that Crapper’s name, ubiquitous on British porcelain, did not at least contribute to the popularization of the term.
Whatever the case, be grateful for you comfortable indoor plumbing facilities which whisk away your waste to a distant treatment facility.  Life would truly be full of crap without it.

Friday, September 27, 2013

White Stockings All Honey But Couldn’t Draw Flies in Troy

Almost all of this 1880 Championship team was back for another romp to the crown a year later.  Cap Anson front and center.   

The Cubs are coasting to the end of their third straight abysmal season this weekend in St. Louis, 28 games behind that perennial rival and National League Central leader.  But the most loyal fan base in baseball continues to turn out to cheer their team on.  26,000 fans still turned out on a Wednesday afternoon to see the team close out their home stand at Wrigley Field—far from a sellout, but not at all bad for a humiliated cellar dweller. 
And the team continues to be the biggest visiting team draw in baseball as the vast Chicago diaspora turns out and well-heeled fans travel to follow their team.  Even in St. Louis, the likely Division Champ and a favorite to win the NL Pennant yet again, blue Cubs caps and gear will be seen liberally sprinkling the seas of red.
That perspective makes todays baseball yarn even more of a head scratcher,
On September 27, 1881 the Chicago White Stockings (now known as the Cubs) played a game before the smallest “crowd” in their long history—12.  Probably also the smallest crowd for any Major League regular season game.  Which was strange.  Under legendary player/coach Cap Anson the Chicago Nine had been to top professional team for some time and dominated the early seasons of the National League.  On that Tuesday afternoon in Troy, New York, the team was coasting to another championship with an eight game lead.
Perhaps it was because the Troy Trojans—you didn’t expect any other nick name did you—were a lousy team.  They struggled in 5th place and finished the season 39-45, 17 games behind Chicago.  But the White Stockings were so laden with talent that they were a draw everywhere, even when the host teams were certified mopes. The Trojans would be disbanded after the next losing season.  More than half of their players jumped to a brand new franchise in New York City, the Gothams—later known as the Giants.
Perhaps the low attendance was due to the weather.  My attempts to ascertain conditions that day in Troy have been unsuccessful.  But it can get a mite nippy and/or rainy and raw in Upstate New York.  My guess is that is what kept the crowd below the combined number of players on the field.
The Cubs would go on to have their own attendance problems, even in beautiful Wriggly Field when they seemed mired in particular futility in the early 1950’s.  But they have gone on to become one of the most successful teams in baseball in terms of selling tickets.  Until the recent run of humiliating seasons, home games have routinely been sold out.  And even this year, hand wringing about dipping attendance usually meant that scattered seats here and there and in the upper deck corners were unfilled.  Compared to the nearly empty stadiums you see on television for some teams, they are the envy of baseball. 
Confident of that fan base, Cubs owners are planning a major renovation to Wrigley Field to accommodate the faithful for years to come. The team’s broadcast revenues reflect the many fans across the nation who tune in by TV or radio.
Oh, by the way, back to that game in Troy—the White Stockings won 10-8.