Today, we install a dynamo on a mountaintop. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering presents
this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
By 1900, the legendary West was
almost gone. It was vanishing so rapidly that we have to
look closely to see where it left us. Take the case of
Telluride, Colorado, formed in 1878 and named after the
tellurium that's to be found in certain gold ores.
By 1888, the California Gold Rush was over and
Telluride's miners had settled into the laborious work of
tunnel-mining and milling low-grade ore. For power, they
used small steam engines. First they burned the local
wood. Then they used burros to cart in coal. Coal was
costing an outrageous forty dollars per ton.
The "Gold King" Company was nearly bankrupt when someone
pointed out what was going on in the East. Six years
earlier, Edison had created the first public electric
power system to provide direct current for his new
electric lights. Soon after, George Westinghouse had
followed suit with an alternating-current system.
The Gold King people wasted no time. In three years,
they'd built a Westinghouse-style hydroelectric power
system. A six-foot Pelton water-turbine, off in the
mountains, drove two, one-hundred-horsepower dynamos.
Three-thousand-volt power traveled two and a half miles
in bare copper wire to an electric motor at the mine.
Hair raising stories are told about workers breaking
six-foot electric arcs around the motor by waving their
hats through them. They installed the system amid
blizzards, avalanches, minus-forty-degree cold snaps, and
huge water-flow variations -- all far from any technical
support. They opened a school to train rough-hewn
electrical engineers who could manage the system.
It took a scant twenty years for those two little dynamos
to expand into the Telluride Power Company. By the early
1900s, it was supplying forty thousand horsepower to
If you have the chance to ski at Telluride, or to ride
the Durango-Silverton narrow-gauge railway to the top of
the next mountain range, try shutting out the amenities
-- the highways, elec-tricity, cold-weather gear, and
hotels. Add death and disease to that. Who were these
people who went into the Rockies to dig gold? It took
people who lacked the most rudimentary caution to do that
-- and to instantly absorb new technology at the same
Only nineteen years later, in 1910, the government began
a vast hydroelectric project. It was a dam across the
Mississippi at Keokuk, Iowa. My father, earning money for
college that summer, worked as a laborer on its
cofferdam. The Telluride power plant had been the work of
nineteenth-century pioneers. Now the Keokuk Dam would
harness the Mississippi River and enter into the stories
that made up my own childhood.
When did the Wild West turn into Modern America? In the
blink of an eye is the answer. Change, too large to
comprehend, was complete before we realized it had even
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.