January 17: Hartford Takes an Electrifying Gamble, and then Gambles Again.

 

On January 17, 1901, the Hartford Electric Light Company (HELCO) took a major — and somewhat risky — step into the steam-powered future with the delivery of a huge, innovative, first-of-its-kind steam-turbine-powered generator. The massive 90,000-pound machine arrived on a custom-designed railroad car following a long journey from the Westinghouse Machine Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where it was manufactured as a special order. HELCO’s advanced approach to electrification had previously made the company the first to engage in long-distance electrical transmission, and Hartford the first city in America to have all-electric street lighting.

After the machine was offloaded in downtown Hartford near Asylum Avenue, a team of engineers carefully transferred it onto a series of rollers and slowly moved it — as gingerly as if they were moving a house — to HELCO’s Pearl Street power plant.

The generator, which Company employees nicknamed “Mary-Ann,” was intended to augment — and eventually replace — a series of hydro-electric generators that HELCO had been using since the 1870s to help power the city. With then-wealthy Hartford experiencing a rapid increase of both commercial industry and population, electric demand was threatening to outpace supply, and so HELCO decided to gamble on installing one of Westinghouse’s giant steam-turbine generators — technology so new, it hadn’t even been tested.

A photo of the state-of-the-art steam-turbine generator “Mary-Ann” at the Hartford Electric Light Company. (Connecticut Historical Society)

After Mary-Ann arrived in Hartford, it took several months for her to start producing electricity as engineers worked out quirks in the turbine’s design and became familiar with its operation. Perhaps the most unexpected discovery was that Mary-Ann would require a water supply equivalent to the entire amount of water Hartford then took in from the Connecticut River, to operate at capacity. To solve this problem, engineers constructed three massive cooling towers that would re-collect the turbine’s expended steam and condense it into reusable water, greatly reducing the demand for water from the Connecticut. In early October, almost nine months after she had been delivered, engineers “flipped the switch” and Mary-Ann sprang into operation, making the Hartford Electric Light Company the first public utility in the United States to generate electricity using steam power.

Assured of having adequate generating capacity, HELCO next took a gamble on its customers, becoming an early innovator in the field of consumer electrical products. Not only was it a pioneer in the wiring aspect of home electrification, it advanced and promoted a series of electric consumer products conceived of and developed by HELCO management and engineers. Among these were the electric refrigerator, an electric oven and cooktop, battery storage for electric automobiles, and electric fans. An electrifying gamble on technology helped spark the future, today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Zac Mirecki, “Let There Be Light (in Hartford),” WNPR