Today, we install a dynamo on a mountain top. 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.
An odd seam cuts across our
thinking about the American West. We see a Wild
West of cowboys and Indians on the one hand, and a
modern West on the other. That's because the
transition was abrupt. In the 1870s most of the
West was still out of reach of telegraph and
railroads, and it was served only by the most
elementary waterwheels and windmills. By 1900 all
that had changed.
Let's look at one example of the transition -- the
arrival of electric power in Telluride, Colorado.
In 1888 Telluride was a gold-mining town up in the
west slopes of the Rockies. The gold rush was over.
Telluride had settled into the energy-intensive
work of tunnel-mining and milling low-grade ore to
get at the gold. The work was powered by small
steam engines. First people burned up all the local
wood. Then they used burros to cart in coal. Coal
was costing $40 a ton -- an outrageous price in
The "Gold King" Company was on the verge of going
bankrupt when someone pointed out what was going on
in the East. Six years ago, Edison had put the
first public electric power
system on line. He'd set up the Pearl Street
Station in New York City to supply his new electric
lights. And George Westinghouse had quickly
followed suit with a system in Massachusetts.
The "Gold King" Company wasted no time. In three
years they had their own electric power system in
place. A 6-foot Pelton water-turbine, off in the
mountains, drove a pair of 100 HP dynamos. Power
traveled 2½ miles in bare copper wire, at
3000 volts, to an electric motor at the mine.
Stories are told about workers breaking 6-foot
electric arcs around the motor by waving their hats
The system was installed in an environment of
blizzards, avalanches, minus-40-degree cold snaps,
and enormous water-flow variations -- all far from
any sort of technical support. In 1891 the company
opened a school to train a kind of rough-hewn
electrical engineer to deal with the system.
By today's standards, the technology was downright
hair-raising. But it was a beginning, and a
beginning that expanded like brush fire. In twenty
years' time these two 100 HP generators had grown
into the Telluride Power Company -- supplying
40,000 HP to three states.
The brash people who went into the Rockies to dig
gold weren't inclined to be bashful about taking on
a new technology. Somehow, you can still see the
cowboys and Indians in this hell-for-leather
transition to a modern America.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds