Future, Current & Past Battery Innovations

By Hugh Abner
[46 Years and Counting Manufacturing Batteries and Battery Machinery]

Samuel Insull

If you read my last blog, (Thank you!), and if you read it closely you would have know that Mr. Samuel Insull was going to be brought to your attention again. Not because he was a battery man as most of us here consider ourselves to be but because our industry of Pb-acid batteries is one of the cousins in the electrical energy family. In the family of energy Insull was huge. No! Do not do as some of my fellow workers have done when I mentioned Insull. They literally rushed to be impressive with names they knew from history. You know the school-day names like Ampere, Edison, Faraday, Franklin, Gramme, Ohm, Plante, Steinmetz, Tesla, Volta and Westinghouse. {No, I did not forget Leyden. Leyden is a city and the inventors Musschenbrook and Kleist developed the Leyden jar in this city}. So, let’s put aside all these names of giants in the electrical family and get on with Mr. Insull. In good consciousness though, I cannot because a field of names such as this deserves a few words of respect. You see, this list is very incomplete to start with and a person could easily be infatuated with any name on it just as I have become with Insull. But Insull is my focus for now.

We in our industry though need to have a more specific understanding of how he fits in with us. Well there is huge part of our industry that has nothing to do with the mechanical, physical and chemical aspects of battery building. It has all to do, however, with marketing and sales. Mr. Insull personally spent his youth working shoulder to shoulder with legendary people like Edison and Tesla. Edison was known to be very lacking in business organization skills and was always in need of financing for his next great idea but when it was left up to him to get these matters in order they rarely were. Insull filled these needs for Edison as a young man and then when Edison’s failure to accept alternating current as the electrical base for the future Insull took steps to advance his career using his own skills combined with the knowledge he had learned from Edison to become America’s electrical distribution master. It would be correct to think of him as the father of the electrical utility system.

His career began in London. He was young and poor. He did not have a formal education but he overcame this using those means which were available to him. He was not in any way the technical or scientific type as per those listed earlier. He was a clerical type. He learned how to take notes with shorthand and then to reproduce hand written documents which were important for business organization. One underlying trait which he seemed to use for advancement was to be always available at work to learn and participate without always being compensated and his clerical skills allowed him to have excellent access to these situations. With these kinds of efforts he had earned his way into a job. He performed it well and his manager called him in one day and told him so but a change had to take place. His job was going to be taken away and given to a family member and the family member would work without pay. He was told that because of his fidelity and capability he could take his time to find another job. His reaction was cold, bold and controlled. He advised that if his work was so insignificant that it could be performed by someone who did not need pay then it was time for him to move on. He left within the hour.

When a successful person’s story is reviewed a similar pattern emerges of their beginning. The person is prepared, has need, desire and youthful energy. This generally is matched up with opportunity and perfect timing. The day Samuel cleaned out his desk all these contingences existed.

There was an advertisement in the London Times for clerical help. An American company in London needed a private secretary. The secretary would serve Thomas Edison’s European agent. Edison by this time was known to most but Insull had special knowledge because he had made the personal choice to read what was available about this great inventor and he was a disciple of the inventor’s attributes concerning self-reliance, self-improvement and personal character. Insull was prepared when he applied for the job and was accepted. He established a favorable noteworthiness and acceptance by his superiors. He had the confidence and ability to make opportunities for himself as in a time when he was offered a job in America as a stenographer in one of Pierpont Morgan’s companies. Insull put out the word that the only way he would go to America would be as the private secretary to Thomas Edison. The right person overheard this directed remark and that person was one of Edison’s most dependable engineers, Edward Johnson. Insull was very aware that Johnson overheard the remark.

Johnson was in a position to be knowledgeable of the big picture and the picture was of Edison being in dire need of secretarial help and his friend Insull as a perfect fit for Edison. The new job came about swiftly and in no time Edison and Insull were working as a good team in America. Many that resented Insull’s rise in position explained it away that his success was because he worked for little and sometimes no pay at all. The part about payment was true in the early days but he was in a position to learn as much as he could not only about Edison’s technical specialties but broad based business demands.

{If a Mr. John F. Wasik happens to read this little blog then he will recognize immediately that I have read his book –“The Merchant of Power which is the story of Samuel Insull, Thomas Edison and The creation of the Modern Metropolis.” I hope Mr. Wasik approves. I know that I became depressed when I finished the book for I was so involved with the story that I felt like part of it all and I did not want it to end.}

Edison started the fore runner of the Edison General Electric company and located it in Schenectady, N.Y. Insull was given the manager’s job but was not relieved of his secretarial duties. This often required working in Schenectady, afternoon travel to Manhattan for night work and then a return trip for the next day’s work in Schenectady. All those who remained with Edison at the upper levels did so with much sleep deprivation. In fact, maybe more so than Edison for there are many reports of Edison stopping from time to time to sleep on a work bench but I have not read where his employees had the same benefit.

It is easy to see that the dedication of Insull to Edison was exorbitant but bad times did arrive. Insull learned much about electrical supply which enabled him to see that Edison was wrong to insist on warring with the alternating current factions. Edison was insistent that direct current was the proper method. He believed this to a fault. So, Insull got caught up in this battle which ended with the Edison General Electric Co. of Schenectady being bought out and Edison’s name removed. Insull was offered an opportunity to stay but he had total confidence that he should have a top position. He left and acquired the position of general manager of Chicago Edison.

This then was the beginning of a growth to one of the world’s greatest business organizations. Insull grew it into a company that supplied electrical and transportation power and service from Saint Paul in the north to Florida in the south. His basic method was to provide train transportation to an area where he also provided electricity. It is easy to see what this meant to such a filthy city as early Chicago was known to be. City workers could live in remote areas where they would be able to buy and enjoy all the new electrical gadgets which in the late 19th century increased weekly if not daily. This became the pattern in all major cities.

Insull had become a fan of the performing arts and opera as a young man in London. In Chicago he was able to become much more than a fan for he was a great benefactor not only with his money but also with his management abilities and trust worthiness.

He became the wealthiest man in America. He made wealth for many others. He took risk. One risk involved his old company which was now, General Electric without the Edison name. At GE there was a man by the name of Charles Coffin that had been an innovator for many years of the early electrical expansions. He and Insull had many experiences together so a trust had been established.

The situation of electrical generation around 1902 was that it was growing at an unbelievable rate but it was all too slow for the plans which drove Insull. He wanted to power the entire country just as Edison had wanted to but Insull had the benefits of being prepared at the exact right moment.

A limiting technical situation was that whether or not the electrical generator was D.C. or A.C. it had to be driven by a steam engine and the two were connected with a belt. The belt was the limiting piece. Both Coffin and Insull were aware that in Europe a stand alone steam turbine generator had been developed. Here too though it was very small scaled. Insull wanted to power Chicago and beyond. The large cities like New York and Chicago were developing with small neighborhood size power plants and even though they were growing at a doubling of the rate with each new development it was simply too small for Insull.

Insull then proposed to GE through Coffin that they build a 5 megawatt turbine for Chicago Edison. GE was experimenting with the singular steam turbine concept. Westinghouse was the group at the time with the largest generator and it produced 2 megawatts of power. Westinghouse was planning a larger 3-1/2 megawatts unit but still with the outdated design. Insull asked GE for a 5 megawatt steam turbine which was self driven. They did not have the confidence to proceed until Insull told them if they would take the unit back if it failed he would pay for all the installation and dismantling cost if needed. They agreed but they knew Westinghouse would really benefit if they failed.

They did not fail and this just enticed Insull to push for more. Within 10 years he was buying 120 megawatt units. This then put him in a position to power the country but what he needed was for the power to have greater users. The push came for him to advertise, build and sell electrical home use gadgets. Advertising like all his other businesses became monstrous business entities. He had too much power just for the local areas even if they were large metropolises. He was well aware that farming areas could use his power if he just extended it out to them. For these huge developments he needed financial means other than stocks and bonds. He introduced the concept of open ended bonds which brought a large degree of flexibility to financial task. The banks had to be sold on this new and bold concept but eventually they joined in.

To service the rural areas he started a project named the “Lake County Experiment.” Lake County borders Chicago’s Cook County to the north. Here power was brought to farms and gave them the pleasures of electrical devices. This actually was a project which led to Roosevelt’s T.V.A. and R.E.A.

By now you have an understanding of the majestic level that Insull operated and lived. Then, how come you never have heard of him? Stuff happens. Depressions happen for instance and if you have built a device, an organization or any kind of an entity that depends absolutely upon future growth to keep supplying the fuel for future survival then you will need a monstrous savings account to keep from dying away. If you have asked for other people to throw in their savings then they too will financially die. They will not completely die and they will attack you. In the courts they will hire the best to try and find a way to make you a cheat. Insull though had a fundamental trait of honesty and when his empire began to decline due to circumstances beyond his control he used all his remaining finances and abilities to accumulate more in order to avoid total devastation. Therefore, when he was brought to court he was not made out to be a cheat because he was a financial loser just as all his former supporters were. He was not jailed but he was dishonored and that  is the way he died.

Electrical power distribution did not die though and it is interesting that today in 2012 we as a country, as a world,  are totally dependent upon it and daily we can find in our news something regarding its future and therefore our own future. A beaten and broken Samuel Insull needs to be known. He meant no harm. His few years of living as a wealthy man are just not enough. I think his friend and benefactor Thomas Edison would agree with me.

1 Comments to “Future, Current & Past Battery Innovations”

  1. Evan Cohn says:

    Great story about a big thinker. Too bad it ends poorly.

Leave a Reply