If you find yourself in Utah for skiing or other business and you love Electric Power history like we do, we recommend you take a short trip up to the Stairs Station Hydroelectric Power Plant. While the Salt Lake City area is most famous for Little Cottonwood Canyon, this power plant from 1895 is located a few miles north in Big Cottonwood Canyon. While you cannot get a tour of the facility it is interesting to check out on your way up to the scenic Guardsman Pass.
I was intrigued by the 1895 date which is the same year many great AC hydropower plants were built across the US. The 1895-1896 period represented a time of growth because of a number of factors. The 1880s was a rough time when we didn’t know which standard would prevail: Thomson or Stanley’s single phase AC? Tesla’s two-phase AC? Bradley’s three-phase AC? or would HVDC come out on top above AC? By 1891 the War of Currents was over when Dobrovolsky demonstrated a complete three-phase AC system in Frankfurt Germany. Over the next few years Charles Steinmetz, Elihu Thomson, Benjamin Lamme, Oliver Shallenberger and many others solved problems and battled or made bids for leading edge patents. The 1893 Redlands Power Plant was a chance for GE to test and develop its three-phase system. Westinghouse was engaged in not the first, but the largest hydroelectric project in history with Niagara Falls. The Stairs Station was built in the same year as Niagara Falls, Folsom and Oregon City Fall’s landmark plants.
The Stairs Station was built by Utah Power to run electric trolleys in Salt Lake City which was only a few miles away. In this way this small station was different from most being built in the West at the time. Most small power stations were built to serve mining operations or mining towns. When the nearby ski areas opened in the 20th century the Stairs Station was used to power the lifts. Eventually as lifts expanded Solitude and other ski areas needed power from multiple sources.
Alta ski area was the first ski area in the Salt Lake Area and opened in 1939. Early ski lifts were often crafted from mining tramway systems. The use of suspended cables to transport people and tools up to mining areas were common and you can see pictures of the remains of the original systems on our Smugglers Union Power Plant page at Telluride. Early ski lifts continue to use a combination of grid power or large diesel engines.
The original installation at Stairs included one 2400 volt Westinghouse Generator (three-phase). When the generator windings burned up in 1980 the plant apparatus was renovated to modern standards.
We recommend you read more about Stairs on this nice little article from HYDRO REVIEW. For now here are some photos I took back in January.
ETC Educational Activities:
The Stairs Station is on our list of activities to help learn about the world of engineering. We recommend you visit the plant and study the layout, then check out Solitude Ski Area up the valley. See how the lifts run and inquire with the staff about how a given lift runs. You will see how our recreational industry depends on the work of electrical engineers to make it all possible.
Salt Lake City has a long history of electric trolleys. In the video below you will see our interview with Malcolm Horton on the Brill Bullet trolleys which first were used in Schenectady and then shipped out to Salt Lake for use there.
Below: the modern massive power needs of Salt Lake are quite distant from the first days of the Stairs Station.
Next week reservations open for the anticipated Tesla Motors Model 3. The Model 3 will be smaller than the Model S but much cheaper at $35,000. This car will be the first car targeted at the middle class and will likely bring the same peppy performance as earlier models.
We have no photos of the car yet which indicates they are likely still working on design and safety testing. We can only hope it has the same low center of gravity and balanced weight as the Model S. You can learn more about the motor of the Model S in our video below shot for the “Iron in our Electrical World” video.
And here’s some more about the batteries and suspension:
This is an awesome car, if you’d like to learn about the rich and long history of electric cars (~120 years) visit our site on Electric Cars here.
When we started our AC Power History pages a few years ago there was one figure who seems to be the “inventor” of AC power but little information was available about him.
Hippolyte Pixii was the first of the founding fathers of the electrical age (this includes Faraday, Henry, Volta, Davenport and Ampere) to focus on alternating current. Sure, others also “discovered it” but they viewed it as an annoyance because their focus was on direct current. Pixii built a commutator and was able to produce DC current.
For the next 40 years this pioneer’s work was largely out of focus. It was in the 1870s that interest in AC power came alive again in Europe. The Ganz Company in Budapest began to use AC power and develop crude systems of delivery. This work caught the attention of Elihu Thomson in the US and Walter Baily in London.
By 1882 there were scattered groups of talented engineers working on AC power including Ferranti, Lord Kelvin and others. Contrary to popular myth, Nikola Tesla had nothing to do with AC power development this early, his main contributions came in later in the 1880s while there was already many others racing forward to develop systems.
In the last couple years we’ve seen more pages, videos and information come out of the dusty archives on Pixii which is great. Below we’ve posted some of our pictures of Pixii’s machine. We urge you to check out the electrical history section of the Smithsonian Museum of American History which has lots of cool old replicas and artifacts from 1800s. You can see a replica of Pixii’s machine there. I have also seen some replicas of Pixii’s work at the Deutches Museum in Munich.
Having recently seen the film “Bridge of Spies” by Steven Spielberg was a reminder of one of our recent documentaries on the great story of Harold (Hal) Chestnut and the International Federation of Automatic Control (IFAC).
It was only 4 years before Gary Powers plane was shot down that IFAC formed out of an effort to connect engineers on both sides of the iron curtain. It was amazing enough to imagine that political forces would allow any form of communication between people working on war technology, and yet even more amazing when they allowed the first IFAC congress to continue to meet just shortly after the Powers incident.
From from an insulated modern-day perspective, the first congress in Moscow doesn’t seem too unlikely, however when you watch the first half of “Bridge of Spies” you will get a better idea of the level of suspicion and espionage going on in both countries during the same period. In the Chestnut documentary when Bernard Widrow describes the extraordinary and “film-like” moment of accidentally seeing what is perhaps rows of bugging equipment in the tallest hotel in Europe (Hotel Ukraina) it seems unlikely. This description suddenly seems very likely and even almost certain once you begin to examine the life and times.
The Spielberg film is centered on the human story of Powers and Rudolf Abel (Вильям Генрихович Фишер) as well as political stresses of the time. The film does a wonderful job of illustrating the period technology and cityscapes of New York and Berlin. Tom Hanks is cast in a position he is well suited for as an insurance agent. His simple yet smart character makes the film approachable to that average US viewer in a way that “Spy Game” (2001) failed to do. I was impressed at Mark Rylance’s performance which may not have a lot of dialogue, but his command of nonverbal communication patterns of Eastern Europeans was accurate.
If you haven’t already seen the Harold Chestnut film I recommend it as it tells the incredible true story of high level engineers working on various projects during a special time in history. If you like systems or control engineering I’d say the doc is a must as it talks about the origins and influence of systems theory on society. Today systems theory is practiced heavily in software engineering and is used by the architects of management systems that almost every engineer works within. Even artists and Hollywood processes for creating large films depend on principles of systems theory laid out by Harold Chestnut. Because the Chestnut documentary must move quickly to cover many decades of his life in just one hour, is a good idea to see “Bridge of Spies” beforehand in order to get a better understanding of context.
The International Federation of Automatic Control helps foster international cooperation, exchange of good ideas and friendships. It provides a nucleus that unifies a specialized but extremely important sub-community of the engineering world. They hold classes and conferences in cities around the globe and if you work in control and would like to know more you can visit their website here.
The Edison Tech Center has outtakes from the Chestnut documentary on its YouTube channel including American Bernard Widrow talking about the invention of RAM and modern Russian pioneers Polyak and Rutkovsky talking about Soyuz, Tspkin and other topics.
IFAC has published both full length episodes of the Harold Chestnut documentary on YouTube:
Its time for the annual Edison Tech Center Pi Day Quiz!
2016 Edison Tech Center Pi Day Quiz
1) The Marchant electromechanical calculator consists of several interlocking gears which are driven by an electric motor. If all the gears have a diameter of one unit, and each gear has ten teeth, what’s the total distance the gears travel for the following calculation:
2) The Marchant electromechanical calculator consists of several interlocking gears which are driven by an electric motor. If all the gears have a diameter of one unit, and each gear has ten teeth, what’s the total distance the gears travel for the following calculation:
999 multiplied by 1001
3) In a Synchronous AC motor, the R.P.M.s are ideally equal to (120 X Freq) divided by the number of magnetic poles.
How fast is the outer material of a 1.5” diameter rotor traveling, when energized at 60 Hz on a synchronous, 4 pole motor?
– Question by Shane Pickett, Nidec Drive Systems Engineer
4) The Marchant electromechanical calculator consists of several interlocking gears which are driven by an electric motor. If all the gears have a diameter of one unit, and each gear has ten teeth, what’s the total distance the gears travel for the following calculation:
1001 minus 999
5) A tire company has twenty stacks of tires up to eight tires high, of seven different diameters. What is the most efficient arrangement of the tires to be able to access any tire?
– Question by Gene Bills
6) A machine to weave canvas sacks uses 6 spools of thread evenly placed around a rotating circular spindle. How much more thread is used for a canvas sack with twice the diameter?
7) How much more volume does a canvas sack with twice the diameter of a smaller canvas sack have?
According to some of us Charles Proteus Steinmetz is arguably the greatest unsung hero of the electrical age. Steinmetz represents the major step from trial-and-error methods of electrical invention to the modern age of engineers where math and science are necessary for innovation.
During the 1890s and 1910s Steinmetz was respected as one of the greatest inventors of the age. He attended important scientific conferences and his inventions and opinions guided the largest of companies. Embarrassingly for Westinghouse, Steinmetz was the only one who could solve problems Ben Lamme and Tesla couldn’t figure out at Niagara Falls. Steinmetz’s mathematics drive the very heart of AC power systems design even today. So why have most people never heard of this distinct and spunky cigar-smoking dwarf?
We were pleased to hear of the new documentary by WMHT (PBS) on Steinmetz. The path to proper publicity starts with a solid documentary and hopefully we’ll see more about him soon.
Here at the Edison Tech Center we have published several basic videos on Steinmetz and included him as part of other biographic documentaries such as Harold Chestnut, Pioneer of Automation. Our webpage on Steinmetz is one of the top when you search for him, and figures indicate thousands of people have used it to learn about his odd fellow.
The fact is we have a lot more to tell about Steinmetz that we have not published yet, so you can expect more to come from our side in the future. For now you can enjoy these free online videos from the “Divine Discontent” documentary:
Mountain Lake PBS 28 minute extension:
And here is the full 1 hour documentary on WMHT’s site:
When the Edison Tech Center published its video with Rudy Dehn talking about how the device worked hundreds of thousands chose to watch it, however many didn’t get the full story. Yes Rudy was one of the guys who made this staple of modern kitchens available, but similarly to most other inventions it took many others to build a foundation. Notable contributors include Albert W. Hull, Kunio Yagi, C.W. Rice, Percy Spencer, and others who all contributed a bit to make the modern oven possible.
Here is a timeline for the microwave oven:
1921 Albert W. Hull at the GE Research Lab in Schenectady, New York develops the magnetron
1924-28 European engineers explore the magnetron oscillator. Zacek (Czech) and Haban (Germany) do work on the subject but don’t apply for any patents
1928 Kunio Yagi works on multi-anode oscillators in Japan. The same year C. W. Rice demonstrates a magnetron transmitter at GE in Schenectady.
1930 General Electric offers type FH-11 magnetron for sale, then later discontinues production due to lack of customers
1937-40 Oliphant develops multi-cavity magnetrons in England, this becomes the first true microwave magnetron
1940-45 Magnetrons were the key components of radar systems
1945 Percy Spensor at Raytheon proposes a microwave oven as a peacetime spin-off of radar. The Radarange is sold to commercial and institutional users.
1945-1950 GE develops magnetrons for industrial processing
1950-1953 GE Range Department developed full size oven using 915 MHz.
1960s GE engineers continue to work on making the power supplies smaller for the microwave oven (as well as many other applications). GE engineers including Rudy Dehn work on making the microwave oven smaller so it can be the modern countertop device we know today.
1960s Japanese companies buy rights from GE and develop the 2450 MHz oven
1970s Japanese manufacturers dominate the field of microwave ovens due to automated production which reduces overall cost for the consumer
Here are a few of our videos on the microwave oven:
The Edison Tech Center begins phase two of testing on the new Universe of Instrumentation project. We will be monitoring use over the next month to see how people are using the program and formulate how to improve it in the future.
In phase one of testing we published a few articles on Ammeters, Voltmeters, Oscilloscopes and other topics on our static site. We used our older long page format. In this current phase we broke content down into smaller chunks with a simple “previous” or “next” button so users can navigate through in the proper order.
Our mission is to tell the balanced story of innovation, and so naturally we’d like if users would progress from the most primitive technologies up to more recent devices. Even if many of our users are already engineers familiar with how the older technologies work, we usually provide unique information on back stories and the human side of the early devices. In the end each user finds a way to have our pages work for them, whether that is a quick look up of a name of fact, or an hour session researching the complete history.
In the beginning of 2016 the Edison Tech Center launched a new site “EdisonTC.org” to host new program content. Many of our older program pages will continue to operate undisturbed in our former static site, but newer content well be published under our new framework.
Giving our own volunteers a voice:
The effort to launch the new site is a response to the growing needs of our users who need a more responsive design for mobile and smaller screens. A great new feature however will be to streamline the publishing process and empower our volunteers to contribute more material. Our content contributors hold a passion for engineering and history and we want to make it easier for them to express themselves and share the lifetimes of knowledge they have worked hard for.
More Readers Helping Readers:
In addition to internal improvements EdisonTC.org will allow users to interact and give useful comments under articles. We will continue to enforce a standard for comments similar to the BBC News website: There will be no offensive or personal attack language permitted and comments that are political or promote conspiracy theory or personality cults will be removed. Overall our goal is to engineers to help comment on topics and contribute towards other readers understanding of the topic, and possibly refer them to other good articles on the subject.
We’ve started the new site with our latest project on engineering tools called “Universe of Instrumentation”. You can check out the new UI program here.