IEEE Power & Energy Society


In the Berkshires, Part 1

William Stanley Started Something

Clean country air, impressive scenery, recreational opportunities, and cultural events have long attracted both residents and visitors to the Berkshire region of western Massachusetts. During the late 1800s, many very wealthy people found the Berkshires to be an ideal summer or year-round retreat, and a number of them built and occupied lavish mansions and estates in southern Berkshire County. While that “gilded age” is long gone, many still flock to the Berkshires to enjoy all that the region has to offer, including such world-renowned attractions as the Tanglewood Music Center. Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, offers a full schedule of musical programs as well as coveted training opportunities for emerging professional musicians.

William Stanley’s pioneering demonstration of a practical alternating current (ac) electric power system in Great Barrington only lasted for about three months in the spring of 1886. However, this feat was widely recognized and welcomed as a glimpse of the future, and it inspired a number of additional early electrification efforts in the Berkshires. This two-part article, authored by Thomas J. Blalock, a resident of Pittsfield, the county seat of Berkshire County, tells the story of those efforts. Incidentally, Stanley’s achievement was named an IEEE Milestone in Electrical Engineering in 2004, the Milestone nomination having been made by the IEEE Berkshire Section.

This is the 14th “History” article authored by Thomas J. Blalock to be published in IEEE Power & Energy Magazine since the magazine’s launch in January 2003. Tom earned a B.S.E.E. degree from Lafayette College and an M.E.E.E. degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. His duties as a development engineer at the former General Electric High-Voltage Engineering Laboratory and later as a test engineer in the Transformer Test Department, both in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, included a broad range of duties, including lightning protection and high-voltage switching surge studies. Since retiring from General Electric, Tom has actively pursued his hobby of “industrial archaeology,” with particular emphasis on the exploration, preservation, and careful documentation of historically important and interesting electric power projects and equipment.

We are pleased to welcome Tom back to these pages as our guest history author for this and the next issue of IEEE Power & Energy Magazine.

—Carl Sulzberger
Associate Editor, History

figure 1. A 1904 map of southern Berkshire County, Massachusetts (image courtesy of the Berkshire Athenaeum).

figure 1. A 1904 map of southern Berkshire County, Massachusetts (image courtesy of the Berkshire Athenaeum).

A great deal has been written concerning the pioneering work of William Stanley in creating the first practical alternating current (ac) installation for lighting and power in the southern Berkshire County town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in 1886.

Following that event, however, many interesting developments occurred concerning the introduction of electric power in Great Barrington and in the neighboring towns of Lenox, Stockbridge, and Housatonic. A significant part of that story involves the industrialist George Westinghouse, Stanley’s one-time employer and later his nemesis. This article is the first of a two-part chronological account of those events. Figure 1 is a 1904 map of the portion of southern Berkshire County relevant to the events described in this article. The white numbers in the black rectangles represent the following eight sites:

  • Kellogg Terrace (later called Searles Castle)/
  • Monument Mills
  • Glendale powerhouse
  • Erskine Park
  • Elm Court
  • Shadowbrook
  • Ventfort Hall
  • Wyndhurst (later called Cranwell).

Stanley in Great Barrington

figure 2. Illustration of William Stanley’s 1886 lighting of Main Street in Great Barrington (image courtesy of the General Electric Company).

figure 2. Illustration of William Stanley’s 1886 lighting of Main Street in Great Barrington (image courtesy of the General Electric Company).

Stanley’s demonstration of the use of ac and transformers for the efficient distribution of electric power took place in Great Barrington, beginning on 20 March 1886 (see Figure 2). At that time, Stanley was in the employ of George Westinghouse who was engaged in building his manufacturing empire in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, Stanley suffered from serious respiratory ailments, and, also by that time, Pittsburgh had earned the dubious reputation as the “sooty city” due to the proliferation of coke ovens and blast furnaces in the area (mostly part of Andrew Carnegie’s developing steel-making empire). As a result, Stanley convinced Westinghouse to allow him to pursue his ac work in Great Barrington (Stanley had family ties there) with its clean country air.

Stanley set up a primitive generating station in a building known as the old rubber mill. This consisted of a boiler and a Westinghouse 25-hp steam engine belted to a Siemens 6,000-W single-phase ac generator operating at 500 V. The Siemens alternator produced current at a frequency of 133 1/3 Hz. This unusual frequency results from the fact that frequency, at that time, was reckoned in terms of “alternations per minute” instead of “cycles per second” or hertz (Hz). This frequency, then, corresponded to a rather tidy value of 16,000 alternations per minute. That would have been the frequency generated by an alternator having 16 magnetic poles and operating at a speed of 1,000 rev/min.

To visually demonstrate to skeptics the use of transformers to create high voltages, Stanley wound two 3,000/500-V transformers. The first stepped the alternator voltage up to 3,000 V to light a string of 30 100-V incandescent lamps in series. The second transformer then stepped the voltage back down to 500 V for distribution to stores and offices along Main Street in Great Barrington.

Interestingly, during 1886, Great Barrington was also being supplied with electric lighting from a source that had nothing whatsoever to do with Stanley’s work. This was due to the fact that a large castle-like mansion, known then as Kellogg Terrace from its location in town, was under construction. Electric lighting had been planned for use in the mansion, and a 100-kW Edison bipolar dynamo had been purchased. While the building was under construction, the dynamo was installed in a small house nearby. Apparently as a goodwill gesture to the town, the use of the dynamo was offered to supply direct current (dc) to light some businesses on Main Street (street lighting was being provided by coal gas at that time).

This mansion was built by the wealthy widow of Mark Hopkins, the treasurer of the Central Pacific Railroad until his untimely death in 1878. Mrs. Hopkins began construction of the house in 1885, having hired a noted designer, Edward Searles. It was completed in 1888 and, in the meantime, Mrs. Hopkins had fallen in love with her designer. They were married in 1887 and, subsequently, the mansion came to be called Searles Castle. It still stands today, lurking behind its original imposing stone wall, and now serves as the home to the John Dewey Academy, a private boarding school.

Mrs. Hopkins’ generosity to the town did not last very long, however. The kind offer to provide lighting for Main Street businesses was rescinded in 1887 when the Edison dynamo was moved into the basement of the nearly completed mansion. Later, it was moved again because it was very noisy.

This removal of electric lighting from the town was doubly unfortunate because, by that time, Stanley’s ac generating station was already out of operation. That was due to the fact that, in June of 1886, a careless attendant managed to drop a screwdriver into the alternator and completely destroy it (apparently, there were klutzes back then too). Publicly, Stanley mourned the loss of his pioneering installation; privately, however, he expressed a sense of relief because he had become weary of attempting to maintain what he described as the “cantankerous” Westinghouse steam engine. He eventually managed to sell the machine with no guarantee for its successful operation.

To fill the void left by the demise of Stanley’s ac installation and the removal of dc supplied from Searles Castle, local entrepreneurs organized the Great Barrington Electric Light Company in April, 1888.

Franklin Leonard Pope

figure 3. Franklin Leonard Pope (photo courtesy of the IEEE History Center).

figure 3. Franklin Leonard Pope (photo courtesy of the IEEE History Center).

Franklin Leonard Pope was born in Great Barrington in 1840. He was actively engaged in the field of telegraphy during his early years and, in 1867, became the editor of the trade magazine The Telegrapher. Then, in 1869, he and Thomas A. Edison formed an ill-fated partnership called Pope, Edison and Company, Electrical Engineers. The fact that Pope’s name preceded Edison’s in this venture may yield a clue as to why the collaboration lasted for only one year. Apparently, Edison had problems working with others whose mind set was similar to his. Another parting of the ways occurred when famed electrical inventor Nikola Tesla attempted to work with Edison.

In 1886, Pope was elected president of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE) (see Figure 3). He retired in 1893 and returned to his family home in Great Barrington, which he extensively remodeled and named Wainwright Hall to memorialize his mother’s maiden name. However, Franklin Pope met with an ironic and very tragic fate when he was electrocuted in the cellar of his home in 1895. He was investigating an electrical problem when he inadvertently contacted the 2,000-V wires feeding the transformer in his cellar.

In that same year, the AIEE published an article written by Pope on the subject of the Great Barrington Electric Light Company. According to Pope’s article, the original station of this company, located near the railroad tracks in Great Barrington, contained an Armington & Sims 80-hp steam engine that drove two Edison 250-light (about 12.5 kW), 110-V dc generators arranged to feed a 110/220-V three-wire distribution system (note the return to dc following the demise of Stanley’s ac demonstration system).

In 1889, a Schuyler dc arc light generator operated from the same engine was added. This supplied a total of 35 1,500-candlepower arc street lights in town, replacing the original coal gas street lighting.

Then, in 1890, a second arc light generator was installed as well as a 500-light, or 25-kW, Westinghouse alternator that was operated from a second steam engine identical to the original. This alternator produced 1,050-V power at the rather unusual frequency of 16,500 alternations (137 1/2 Hz). Transformers reduced the alternator voltage to 52 V for use with Westinghouse incandescent lamps. This low voltage was used by Westinghouse to counter claims by Edison that the use of ac was more dangerous than Edison’s 110-V dc.

This original generating station operated until 1894 and, according to Pope, all five of the generators described above were still in operation at the time of its closing.

George Westinghouse in Lenox

figure 4. Erskine Park, the estate of George Westinghouse and family (photo courtesy of the Berkshire Athenaeum).

figure 4. Erskine Park, the estate of George Westinghouse and family (photo courtesy of the Berkshire Athenaeum).

In the late 19th century, the town of Lenox, Massachusetts, in southern Berkshire County, had developed into what some referred to as the inland Newport. This was in reference to the fact that several wealthy families were building elaborate mansions in Lenox similar to the mansions then being constructed in the coastal town of Newport, Rhode Island.

In 1886, George Westinghouse traveled to Great Barrington to inspect William Stanley’s pioneering ac installation there. It so happened that, like Stanley, Westinghouse’s wife, Marguerite, also suffered from respiratory problems made worse by the undesirable air quality in Pittsburgh. Consequently, Westinghouse decided to purchase land in the town of Lenox to build a summer mansion there. In 1890, the completed structure was named Erskine Park in honor of Marguerite’s maiden name (see Figure 4).

Quite naturally, given Westinghouse’s involvement in the developing electric power industry, Erskine Park was equipped for electric lighting rather than gas. The property overlooked a body of water called Laurel Lake, and, on its shore, Westinghouse had his own private powerhouse constructed. The mansion contained at least 1,500 incandescent lamps and was said to be the largest private installation of electric lighting at the time. Unfortunately, both the imposing mansion and its powerhouse are long gone.

figure 5. Elm Court, the residence of William D. Sloane and family (photo courtesy of the Berkshire Athenaeum).

figure 5. Elm Court, the residence of William D. Sloane and family (photo courtesy of the Berkshire Athenaeum).

In 1893, another George, George H. Morgan, who was related to the famed financier J.P. Morgan, completed Ventfort Hall, located near the Lenox town center. This house, however, was equipped with gas lighting at the time of its construction. Surviving evidence clearly indicates that Ventfort Hall was supplied with gas from a device in the cellar known as a Springfield Gas Machine (Lenox never had a municipal gas supply).

This patented device used vapors from liquid gasoline to operate gas lighting fixtures. The gasoline was confined to an underground vault located a safe distance from the house. A blower unit in the cellar pumped air to the vault where it was combined with gasoline vapor and then returned to the house for distribution.

The blower unit was often operated by a clockwork mechanism in which a heavy weight was wound up by hand to then power the blower. At Ventfort Hall, the heavy, multiple sheave pulley from which this weight was suspended is still in place. Alternatively, the blower was sometimes operated by means of a small water turbine unit. The remains of this type of installation are still in place in the cellar of the Red Lion Inn located in the town of Stockbridge, between Lenox and Great Barrington.

figure 6. Wyndhurst, the home of John Sloane and family (photo courtesy of the Berkshire Athenaeum).

figure 6. Wyndhurst, the home of John Sloane and family (photo courtesy of the Berkshire Athenaeum).

Meanwhile, according to a local newspaper account in 1892, approximately 300 electric lights were being supplied from the Erskine Park powerhouse at another large mansion known as Elm Court (eventually, this house contained a total of 90 rooms). It was constructed by William D. Sloane, an executive with W. & J. Sloane and Company, a well-known furniture firm located in New York City. His wife, Emily, was the daughter of William H. Vanderbilt, who was the son of Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, both of New York Central Railroad fame. Elm Court survives today and is located between the town center of Lenox and the site of the former Erskine Park estate (see Figure 5).

In 1894, John Sloane, president of W. & J. Sloane and Company, constructed his mansion at a site some distance to the east of the Lenox town center. He called this house Wyndhurst, and it was equipped with electric lights that were supplied via an overhead power line from an early powerhouse associated with the Smith Paper Company in the nearby town of Lee, Massachusetts (see Figure 6).

figure 7. Shadowbrook, the residence of Anson Phelps Stokes and family (photo courtesy of the Berkshire Athenaeum).

figure 7. Shadowbrook, the residence of Anson Phelps Stokes and family (photo courtesy of the Berkshire Athenaeum).

Also in 1894, wealthy investment banker Anson Phelps Stokes made his contribution to the complement of huge mansions in and around Lenox by completing the construction of Shadowbrook to the west of the town center (see Figure 7). This house held the title of the largest private home in the United States for one year. In 1895, that honor was usurped upon the completion of Biltmore by George W. Vanderbilt (a grandson of the Commodore) near Asheville, North Carolina.

The 100-room Shadowbrook mansion was named for a hillside stream on the property. Apparently, some sort of small water-power installation was constructed on this stream to provide the house with electric lights. A newspaper article of the time refers to an “electrical engineer” being employed at Shadowbrook. Stokes offered to supply electric power to Lenox itself until it was decided that his “water privilege” was not of sufficient capacity to allow for that.

Shadowbrook was to have an interesting history in later years. From 1906 to 1919, it was owned by none other than Andrew Carnegie, whose steel plants in and around Pittsburgh were primarily responsible for the poor air quality there. Upon Carnegie’s death, the mansion passed to the Jesuit Order, who occupied it until a disastrous and spectacular fire unfortunately destroyed it in 1956. A new structure was built in its place, and it still exists today as the Kripalu Center.

In any event, the citizens of Lenox proper were becoming desirous of having the new electric light available in the center of the town. However, at the same time, nearly all citizens were violently opposed to the introduction of overhead power lines in town like the one supplying electric power to Wyndhurst from the town of Lee. In one newspaper account, the Wyndhurst power line was referred to as being “hideous to an aesthetic taste.” George Westinghouse came to the rescue by offering to supply electric power to the town of Lenox via underground conduits from his Erksine Park powerhouse.

During 1894, the Lenox Electric Company was formed by a group of local businessmen to handle the eventual distribution of electric power from the Westinghouse powerhouse throughout the town center, with this becoming a reality in the following year.

A newspaper note in May of 1894 indicated that the introduction of electric lighting would be made somewhat more difficult since “so many of the fine estates are supplied with private gas works” (as was true at Ventfort Hall).

Even though Wyndhurst was equipped with electric lights at the time of its construction, an exploration of the basement areas of the house by the author several years ago yielded the discovery of remnants of original gas lighting fixtures. This indicates that Wyndhurst used gas lights as a back-up, probably using gas from a Springfield Gas Machine.

This gas lighting may have been required in October of 1894 when a newspaper article reported that the electric lights failed during an elaborate party being given by Mrs. Sloane. The comment was made that “there is no joy in an electric lighting system unless it be reliable.”

Wyndhurst was eventually renamed Cranwell by a subsequent owner during the early 20th century. It survives today as a resort and conference center.

Monument Mills

In 1894, while Lenox was being wired for electric lighting, the original power station of the Great Barrington Electric Light Company was taken out of service. That station had been supplying 110/220-V dc as well as dc for use with series-connected arc street lights and, in addition, relatively high frequency 137 1/2-Hz single-phase ac power.

It was decided that all of this should be replaced by a single type of generated power. By this time, the Stanley Electric Manufacturing Company was well established in the town of Pittsfield to the north. This operation had begun in 1891 when William Stanley had a serious disagreement with George Westinghouse and decided to leave Pittsburgh and start his own enterprise. The Berkshires was a natural location for Stanley to consider because of his work in Great Barrington just a few years before.

Very fortuitously, at this particular time, the Monument Mills textile manufacturing complex in the adjoining village of Housatonic had just completed a hydroelectric station for its own use but was interested in supplying power to Great Barrington as well.

Monument Mills dated from 1850, but the origins of a textile mill at that location dated from 1825. The mill complex ceased production and closed down in 1956, but most of the buildings still stand today, having been adapted for other uses.

Mill Superintendent Theodore Ramsdell was responsible for the decision to electrify the mills in 1892. He purchased a dam that formerly had been associated with the Stockbridge Iron Works. The dam was located about 1 mi (1.6 km) or so up the Housatonic River from the mill complex. Undoubtedly, it had been used to operate either a bellows or what were called air tubs to provide the air blast for the iron smelting furnace. This site originally was known as Alger’s Furnace and later as the Stockbridge Furnace.

figure 8. The first alternator built by Stanley Electric Manufacturing Company, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and installed for the Monument Mills Company, Housatonic, Massachusetts, in 1893 (photo courtesy of the General Electric Company).

figure 8. The first alternator built by Stanley Electric Manufacturing Company, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and installed for the Monument Mills Company, Housatonic, Massachusetts, in 1893 (photo courtesy of the General Electric Company).

Ramsdell approached William Stanley to supply the electrical equipment for this new hydroelectric facility. Accordingly, a 325-hp water turbine was installed, which drove a Stanley two-phase, 2,100-V alternator operating at a frequency of 8,000 alternations per minute, or 66-2/3 Hz (see Figure 8).

This was the first such alternator constructed by the Stanley Electric Manufacturing Company in Pittsfield. Prior to this, transformers were the major product of the company. When this machine was retired from use in 1914, it was donated to the Museum of Natural History (now the Berkshire Museum) in Pittsfield. Sadly, in later years, it was decided that the alternator was just too large for display in the museum, and it was scrapped. Only its brass nameplate survives in the museum storage vaults today.

At that time, Stanley produced primarily two-phase equipment to lessen the already existing burden of patent litigation with both General Electric and Westinghouse, both of whom were producing three-phase equipment instead. Two-phase power is now obsolete, having been replaced entirely by the more efficient three-phase method of distribution (although, it would not be terribly surprising to learn that, somewhere, two-phase power is still in use; comments from readers in this regard would be appreciated).

Originally, only a two-wire, single-phase transmission line was constructed along the 5-mi (8-km) route to Great Barrington. However, provision was made for the addition of a third wire later to supply two-phase power using a common third wire for the two phases.

As is still the case today, it was not common practice to insulate the wires of such transmission lines since the necessary insulation was provided by porcelain insulators at the poles. As a concession to public concern, however, insulated wire was used on the portions of the line running adjacent to public roads. The insulators used were imported from Hagen, Germany.

The original Stanley alternator installed in the Alger’s Furnace station was rated at 240 kW, and it was of a peculiar design developed by Stanley and known as an “inductor” alternator (not to be confused with an “induction” alternator that is simply an induction motor driven above its synchronous speed).

In Stanley’s inductor machine, both the current-producing windings and the field winding providing the necessary magnetism were on the stator. The rotor consisted only of iron “inductor” poles having no windings whatsoever. This meant that no brushes or slip rings were required at all. However, the effective air gap (from stator to rotor and then back to stator) was twice that of the more conventional rotating field alternator.

Since this was the first alternator designed and constructed at the Pittsfield shops, it is understandable that its magnetic configuration was far from perfect. Apparently, the iron losses in the machine were so great that it was said by the station operators to be a “splendid stove” in winter, providing heat for the station to supplement a small coal stove.

In Great Barrington, Stanley transformers were used to step down the 2,100-V transmission line voltage to 105/210 V, which fed into the distribution system formerly supplied at 110/220 V dc. As long as incandescent lamps constituted the only load, it didn’t matter whether ac or dc was being distributed. However, customers who were using the 52-V Westinghouse incandescent lamps were forced to replace them with 105-V lamps.

The former series-connected dc arc street lighting installation was replaced with a new ac series-connected system in which circuits of 42 incandescent lamps of 32 candlepower each were directly connected to the 2,100-V supply (50 V per lamp).

A device known as a film cutout had been developed as a means of avoiding the loss of all lamps in a series string when just one filament burned out. A very thin piece of insulating material (the film) was placed between two metallic spring contacts, and this arrangement was connected across a series-connected lamp. The normal lamp voltage was not sufficient to puncture the film, but the very high system voltage that appeared momentarily upon the failure of a lamp filament was. Thus, the faulty lamp would be short-circuited, and the rest of the series string would remain lit.

With series-connected arc lights, electromechanical cutouts were included that would automatically short out a single inoperative lamp. This would occur when the consumable carbon electrodes were used up, or in the event one of these rather fragile electrodes broke. A manually operated short-circuiting cutout also was included for safety during electrode replacement when the system was energized.

Part 2

The further development of early electric power in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, will be discussed in the second and concluding part of this article in the September/October 2012 issue of IEEE Power & Energy Magazine.

For Further Reading

C. B. Gilder and R. S. Jackson, Jr., Houses of the Berkshires (1870–1930). New York: Acanthus Press, 2006.

L. S. Parrish, A History of Searles Castle in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Great Barrington, MA: Attic Revivals Press, 1985.

D. Drew, A History of Monument Mills in Housatonic, Massachusetts. Great Barrington, MA: Attic Revivals Press, 1984.

B. A. Drew and G. Chapman, William Stanley Lighted a Town and Powered an Industry. Pittsfield, MA: Berkshire County Historical Society, 1985.

F. L. Pope, “Notes on the reconstruction of a small central station plant,” AIEE Trans., vol. 12, pp. 454–469, June 1895.

J. Franz, “Housatonic River hydroelectric plants,” Elec. World, vol. 55, no. 22, pp. 1441–1442, June 1910.

J. Franz, “Underground cable system in a village of two thousand inhabitants,” Elec. World, vol. 54, no. 4, p. 191, July 1909.

F. B. Crocker, Electric Lighting, 2 vols., 6th ed. New York: D. Van Nostrand Company, 1906.