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InterviewsHarold Platt

Great Projects: The Building of America
Harold Platt

Interview with Loyola University Professor Harold Platt for Program Two: "Electric Nation"

Note: This transcript is from a videotaped interview for the "Electric Nation" segment of "Great Projects." It has been edited lightly for readability.

Harold Platt: In 1929, Samuel Insull was one of the most famous men in America. He had arrived here in 1880 as a secretary for Thomas Edison, an immigrant, young immigrant from England. And during that time, 'til 1929, he had fulfilled the American dream and more, rising up to become the head of the largest utility company in America, Commonwealth Edison, and a vaster empire of holding companies of utility companies across America that apparently controlled about one-eighth of the electricity in the entire country. He was famous because he was so outspoken as the leader of the electrical utilities industry and he was outspoken as a great leader of Chicago.

HP: In 1892, Samuel Insull faced a big decision. Two of the largest companies making electrical equipment joined together as General Electric. Sam Insull was heading the manufacturing arm of Edison's company up in Schenectady, New York. And under the new merger plan, he would have ended up as second vice president or third in charge of the entire General Electric company. This was quite a prestigious position but not the top man. At the same time, Chicago Edison a fledgling little electric company in Chicago was searching for a new president, and Insull as Edison's point man in selling central station service was familiar to the Chicago businessmen. They asked Insull for advice as to who they should ask to be the next president, and instead he put his own name forward. This gave him an opportunity to fulfill Edison's idea that central stations would be the way that electricity would develop, and here was an opportunity for Insull to prove Edison's ideas by taking over this small company in Chicago.

HP: When Sam Insull came to Chicago in 1892 he arrived at a very important moment, a moment of the Great World's Fair, Colombian World Exposition of 1893. Based on the previous great exhibition in Paris in 1889, the electrical industry had already decided to make this an electrical exhibition, to provide so much electricity, so overwhelming, that the American public would definitely understand that this new technology was the wave of the future. So when Insull arrived the World's Fair was already well in the works and actually the alternative to the Edison Direct Current System had won the big contract for the fair -- this was George Westinghouse -- alternating current system. So the fair was very filled with electricity. Not just lights, but all kinds of spotlights and dancing fountains buoys along the waterfront that lit up a sidewalk that moved and intramural train that went around the fair. So people could not escape the effects, the wonderful effects of electricity. Insull was able to view the fair and from this, he learned some important lessons.

HP: Probably the most important lesson was seeing that electricity was used in so many different ways at the fair, that there had to be a way to make ... electricity universal for street railways, for ... lights, for big machines, for all different kinds of uses. And it was at the fair that this process of finding a way to transform and change electricity ... into the form that was needed was worked out. And it's from this that Insull can take this idea and expand it to build a whole citywide network of electrical, central station service that would provide universal electricity to all kinds of users.

HP: In 1892, when Sam Insull arrived in Chicago, the plans for the World's Fair actually had more electrical use than the whole city of Chicago itself. The main problem was that electricity could not be conveyed very far without losing all of its power. Maybe a half a mile was the limit. This meant that in the early days from Edison 1880 to this point stations served these little circles of space, and basically served only in the most lucrative business districts. In some of the outlying areas of Chicago, there were these alternating current systems, supplying residential and business strips with overhead wires. Sometimes someone would buy just a generator, put it in the basement and maybe have a little extra and they'd run a string of lights across to their neighbors or to the neighboring store. Insull's idea was to consolidate all this, to obtain a monopoly of service throughout the city and then build an entire network or system of central stations and sub-stations that could serve the entire city, and that way, in the sense, as he talked about, producing massive production, or the idea that through large scale production, he'd be able to get the cost down and be able to actually make it affordable for common people.

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