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Making Sure the Lights Stay On, No Matter What

Thomas Edison and Samuel Insull believed in providing dependable electric power. They knew that if people were going to trust electricity to power their lights, streetcars, elevators and factories, the power system needed to be present and ready at all times.

“Let us suppose, by some calamity, our service is instantaneously stopped,” said Insull in an address to students at the Chicago Central Station Institute on May 7, 1915. “…If it occurred at any time during the ordinary working day, it would stop the urban transportation lines of the city. It would stop…the elevator service…

It would absolutely stop the business of our big emporiums of retail commerce.”

In 1926, Reddy Kilowatt was introduced by the Alabama Power Company as the icon of electric power dependability. “Whenever you need me, I’ll be there! I’m Reddy!” the character with lightning bolts for limbs and a lightbulb nose exclaimed in advertisements, posters, comic books and on buildings for more than seven decades.

As U.S. demand for electric power increased in the 1920s and beyond, regional franchised monopolies grew rapidly. The public utility commissions that regulated them reviewed the monopolies’ books, ensuring that it all worked financially for customers and shareholders.

Edison and Insull realized they needed to invent, design and build reliable components for the power system to create a dependable network: generators, loads and the wires and connectors in between. From these early days, creativity, invention and the use of technology to solve problems were central themes in the industry.

Utilities became known as Public Service companies, or just PS companies: a vision statement in two words, or just two letters.

Edison and Insull also understood that with the diversity of the loads, central electric generating facilities would make the most sense and would capitalize on the economies and efficiencies of scale.

Their measurements demonstrated that one reliable central plant could serve loads five or more times greater than its rating, due to our diversity of use. Also, large central plants would be more fuel and capital efficient. It didn’t make sense to have a generator for street lighting alone because it would sit idle during the day. Nor did it make sense for department stores in downtown Chicago to each have a generator next to the boilers in their basements. The generator needed to be working around the clock in order for capital to really pay off. “Capital always gets its pay,” Insull would say.

So, for people to use electricity, and for investors to buy shares, electricity not only needed to be affordably priced and a good investment—it needed to be dependable...

To read the full article, visit RMEL Magazine (RMET) - Summer 2021 - Cover ( The article begins on page 10.