This article focuses on the concept that in the dark years of the Great Depression, rural cooperatives brought a new level of power to American agriculture. Vermont was a microcosm of the electric power industry’s business model during the three decades following the turn of the century. Numerous utilities came online to meet the demands of factories, streetcars, and households in expanding urban centers. Electricity-powered machines to milk cows and dry corn ran pumps to increase the availability of water for irrigation, and provided heat for pigpens and chicken coops. Electricity also brought comfort and convenience to the home, as country residents purchased appliances to preserve food, wash and iron clothes, and vacuum floors. The technological factors that drove the growth of electric utilities in the early 20th century include improved steam efficiencies, the development of turbocharged generators, the application of superpower, and gains in lowering system heat rates. ASME was at the focal point of all these topics. Society members were the ones designing and maintaining the systems and operating the plants, as well as developing the technical standards for steam boilers.
Before his days as a mechanical engineer and an ASME Fellow, Conrad Ladd was a farm boy. His family operated a dairy farm in South Duxbury, Vt., in 1932, and Ladd can recall the daily hardship and sweat of producing sufficient good milk to bring even a modest income and sustenance. Machines to milk cows and refrigerators to cool the product would have brought increased productivity to the farm, but these conveniences were not options for Ladd's family. Those were the days before electricity reached rural Vermont.
"Electric utilities were located in the nearby towns; however, these companies were not interested in running distribution lines to supply power to our farm and other rural customers," said Ladd, who is an active member in the ASME Power Division and on the Society's Energy Committee. "From the standpoint of the utilities, farms and rural homes at the time were stretched too far apart and offered too little demand relative to the cost of investment in the construction of poles and power lines."
Vermont was a microcosm of the electric power industry's business model during the three decades following the turn of the century. Numerous utilities came online to meet the demands of factories, streetcars, and households in expanding urban centers. In the heady years from 1901 to 1932, electric utility capacity and generation grew at an annual rate of 12 percent a year. In 1930, electric power was more abundant and available than ever before, yet the majority of utilities showed no interest in distributing it to the farmsteads.
The large, investor-owned utilities dominated the scene. In a common scenario, a small private power generator operating in a narrow local market would merge with a large electric utility, which in turn would partner with another large utility that controlled the infrastructure of high-voltage transmission lines. Local business monopolies ensued, as did holding companies that maintained a controlling interest in a number of electric utilities. In the late 1920s, the 16 largest electric power holding companies controlled 75 percent of all power generation nationwide.
That situation, however, was about to change, as were so many other aspects of the American economy over the next decade. Ironically, it was in the 1930s, when the Great Depression gripped the country, that electrification expanded to the rural U.S. heartland.
Big Brother is Watching
When ASME celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1930, about 80 percent of urban dwellings were electrified. Most of rural America remained in the dark, however. By 1930, only 10 percent of farms in the country had been connected to central power stations.
The disparity between urban and rural service was a catalyst for change. Farmers, toiling with outmoded techniques and feeling isolated from the fruits of modern industrialization, petitioned the government for assistance in obtaining electricity. They found a sympathetic ear in Franklin D. Roosevelt, who as governor of New York in 1931 created the New York Power Authority to develop hydroelectric generating capacity, and who as US. president two years later set out to correct the inequities foisted upon the nation by the electric power holding companies.
As a first step, President Roosevelt moved to regulate the private utilities. Then, in May 1935, Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration, which used $410 million in appropriated funds to construct the infrastructure that could deliver electricity to the farms and countryside.
The Rural Electrification Administration, or REA, provided low-interest loans to cooperatives, typically groups of fanners and rural customers who managed local electrification projects. Using standards and technical guidelines furnished by the REA, members of the cooperatives erected the poles and strung the electric lines.
Some cooperatives contracted for power from nearby utilities, while oth ers designed and operated small power plants. When local electrification projects were up and running, the cooperatives repaid the government. According to Claiborn Crain of the US. Department of Agriculture, the cooperatives, for the most part, made good on the government loans.
Besides Franklin Roosevelt and the farm cooperatives, many others supported REA and pointed out the benefits of rural electrification. The former president, Herbert Hoover, and Morris L. Cooke, a mechanical engineer who exerted considerable influence in the electric power business for three decades, were among the strongest proponents of rural electrification. However, the men had divergent views about approach and strategy.
Both Hoover and Cooke had connections to ASME. Hoover, who argued that rural electrification programs be managed by the states, spoke at ASME's 50th anniversary function on the role of the engineer in public service. The Society's Hoover Medal bears the name of the man who held the engineering profession in high esteem and considered engineers to be problem solvers and key contributors to the public's comfort and welfare. A portrait of Herbert Hoover hangs on the 23rd floor at ASME headquarters in New York.
As ASME celebrates its 125th anniversary this year, Mechanical Engineering is running articles every month that highlight key influences in the Society's development. This, the sixth in our series, examines the ambitious federal program, begun during the Depression years, to electrify America's farms and countryside.
Morris Cooke, who battled what he perceived as abusive and undemocratic business practices of the electric utilities, spoke before ASME on the social responsibility of engineers. In 1934, Cooke authored an 11-page report that provided the foundation for a federal rural electrification program. In the report, he delineated the costs of running lines and installing electric meters against the estimated rate payments. His analysis was: "The cost of the line with transformers and meters included for one to three customers will range from $500 to $800 per mile. To amortize this cost at 20 years at four percent involves. a cost to each of the three customers on a mile of line of about $1 per month." Franklin Roosevelt appointed Cooke the first head of REA.
The Rural Electrification Administration had detractors, as well. The investor-owned utilities and other industry groups viewed the REA as a disturbing example of federal government involvement in the affairs of private enterprise. Conservative members of Congress did not want the government to interfere with the economy, believing that the REA and other New Deal programs would bring the nation to the doorstep of socialism.
Nevertheless, rural electrification forged ahead. By the end of 1938, 350 rural electric cooperatives were delivering electricity to 1.5 million farms and more than 250,000 rural households. In 1941, 25 percent of rural dwellings were electrified, compared with 11 percent in 1932. By the mid-1950s, nearly all American farms had electric service, which was provided through the Rural Electrification Administration or other means.
To the farmer, electricity was a godsend.
ASME members were the ones designing and maintaining the systems and plants and developing the standards for steam boilers.
Electricity powered machines to milk cows and dry corn, ran pumps to increase the availability of water for irrigation, and provided heat for pigpens and chicken coops. Electricity also brought comfort and convenience to the home, as country residents purchased appliances to preserve food, wash and iron clothes, and vacuum floors.
The technological factors that drove the growth of electric utilities in the early 20th century include improved steam efficiencies, the development of turbocharged generators, the application of superpower, and gains in lowering system heat rates. ASME was at the focal point of all these topics. Society members were the ones designing and maintaining the systems and operating the plants, as well as developing the technical standards for steam boilers. Members were publishing actively in ASME's journals and in other technical periodicals.
While not all the members were clearly behind the federal electrification program, it was the efforts by many ASME members that brought electric power to the farm and light to the rural homestead.