After Thomas Edison introduced the incandescent light bulb in the United States, he needed a way to provide power to a growing customer base. He built his first commercial power station in New York City in 1882. Steam provided power to the Pearl Street station, but soon other sources of power were explored. Water, used to produce mechanical power at least since the days of ancient Rome, was a logical next choice. After all, many factories in the late 1800s were already using large water wheels to mechanically power their machines.
Just weeks after the Pearl Street power station opened, a hydroelectric power plant started operation in Appleton, Wisconsin. Known as the Vulcan Street Plant, it harvested the power of the Fox River with a water wheel. As water flowed down the river, it pushed up against the paddles of the wheel, causing it to turn. A system of belts and gears linked the moving wheel to a generator, an Edison “K” type dynamo. The generator converted mechanical energy into electricity, which initially powered lighting at two paper mills and one home.
The home belonged to a businessman by the name of H.J. Rogers, the impetus behind the Vulcan Street Plant. Rogers served as president of the Appleton Paper & Pulp Company and the Appleton Gas Light Company. When he heard of Edison’s planned steam-based power station for New York, Rogers thought a similar scheme could benefit his businesses. Instead of steam, however, Rogers hoped to take advantage of the proximity of the Fox River. He pitched the idea to a few community leaders, and with A.L. Smith, H.D. Smith and Charles Beveridge founded the Appleton Edison Light Company.
The inhabitants of Appleton viewed the young company with skepticism. Making matters worse was a big snafu at the September 27, 1882 opening. After the generator was started, the lamps linked to it with copper wiring failed to light up. After some reworking, the Appleton Edison Light Company tried again. On September 30, the filaments in the lamps in his mills and house lit up brightly as the dynamo whirred. In the following weeks, townspeople visited the electrically powered buildings to gaze in awe at the lights, which, as the local paper reported, were “as bright as day.”
Despite the excitement, the power station experienced numerous difficulties during its infancy. The voltage, varying with the flow of water powering the generator, couldn’t be regulated. When it ran too high, the lights burned out; short circuits frequently occurred. There was no way to know the voltage, other than estimating it based on the brightness of the lamps. Because there was no way to measure how much electricity a particular customer used, everyone paid a flat monthly fee. Over time, these and other problems were remedied and the success of Rogers’ company was cemented.
In November 1882, a second dynamo belonging to the Appleton Edison Light Company began providing electric juice to two other homes near Vulcan Street. Before year’s end, several more homes, mills and even a blast furnace received electricity for lighting as well. Soon after, a local hotel was lit up by electric bulbs. By 1886, new, larger generators were necessary to provide enough electricity to customers of the Appleton company, which at that time changed the location of its central power station. As electricity became more popular, the Appleton Edison Light Company morphed into a larger operation called the Wisconsin Michigan Power Company.
Strangely enough, the success of the Vulcan Street Plant and other early power stations adversely affected the fate of the primary man behind them, Thomas Edison. People with homes and businesses farther and farther away from the central stations wanted electrical power too. But Edison’s direct current systems were poorly suited for transmitting electricity over long distances. Alternating current eventually proved to be the answer, and it fell to Nikola Tesla and partner George Westinghouse to provide it to the American people.
Today hydroelectricity is the most widely used form of renewable energy, providing 20 to 25 percent of the world’s electricity. This much energy, of course, doesn’t come from simple water wheels. Most modern hydroelectric power stations involve large dams and depend on the potential energy of the dammed water to drive water turbines and electric generators.