Milestones:Shoshone Transmission Line, 1909


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Shoshone Transmission Line, 1909

Georgetown, CO Dedicated June 1991 - IEEE Denver Section

July 17, 1909, the Shoshone Transmission Line began service carrying power, generated by the Shoshone Hydroelectric Generating Station, to Denver. The Line operated at 90 kV, was 153.4 miles long, and crossed the Continental Divide three times reaching an altitude of 13,500 feet. Its design and construction represented an outstanding electrical engineering accomplishment due to its length, the mountainous country over which it was constructed, and the unusually severe weather conditions under which it operated.

The plaque can be viewed at the Georgetown Energy Museum, 600 Griffith Street, Georgetown, CO, U.S.A.

On 17 July 1909 the Shoshone Transmission Line began carrying power from the Shoshone Hydroelectric Generating Station, on the Colorado River near Glenwood Springs, across the Continental Divide to Denver. This power line was a pioneering achievement because of its 150-mile length, the mountainous country it traversed, and the extreme weather conditions under which it operated.

The year the Shoshone Line went into operation was also the year William Howard Taft was inaugurated as the 27th President. When Teddy Roosevelt, thus relieved of the Presidency, then set off for Africa and big-game hunting, several conservative senators wished "health to the lions" and J. Pierpont Morgan said he expected the first lion Roosevelt met to do its duty. The 16th Amendment, giving Congress the power to levy an income tax, was ratified in 1909. Robert E. Peary reached-or at least claimed to have reached-the North Pole, and the Panama Canal was nearing completion. It was a time of suffragettes, the Anti-Saloon League, and ragtime.

In 1909 the American Institute of Electrical Engineers had about 7000 members-the IEEE has some 380,000 today-and the Institute of Radio Engineers-the other IEEE predecessor society-had not yet been founded. Still, electrical engineering was in some ways a mature profession. The professional society, the AIEE, was 25 years old, and its Transactions had been published for almost as long. A number of colleges and universities offered courses of study in electrical engineering. (In the year 1909 at the most influential of these institutions, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the director of the EE program, Dugald Jackson, appointed a new assistant professor, William E. Wickenden, an appointment which, as things turned out, led to closer ties between industry and EE education.) But perhaps the best evidence of the maturity of electrical engineering was in its products, and perhaps its most impressive products, in the year 1909, were three networks of electrical lines-telegraph lines, telephone lines, and power lines.

The telegraph lines began their spread in 1837 at Morristown, NJ when Alfred Vail and Samuel Morse publicly demonstrated the instruments capable of sending messages over a 10-mile line. In 1844 Morse's line between Baltimore and Washington DC carried the first message, "What hath God wrought." By 1851 there were 11 lines radiating out from New York City, and in 1861 the United States had a transcontinental telegraph line, which was honored last year in a Milestone Dedication Ceremony at Fort Laramie WY. In 1866 regular transatlantic telegraph service began-there had been a short-lived success eight years earlier-and just four years later, in 1870, all the inhabited continents were linked by, telegraph lines. In this country at that time an extensive network was in use-in fact, so much in use that many people worked on ways to send, over one line, more than one message at a time. In 1876 at the Centennial Celebration in Philadelphia, Elisha Gray demonstrated his device to send eight messages simultaneously.

Another man who worked on simultaneous telegraph transmission was Alexander Graham Bell. He achieved fame, however, with a different device, the telephone, which also was demonstrated at the Centennial Celebration. Telephone service between Boston, MA and Providence, RI began in 1880 and between Boston and New York in 1884; in 1892 it reached out to Chicago. In 1909, as the Shoshone Transmission Line was being completed, John J. Carty, Chief Executive of AT &T was making a tour of telephone exchanges in the West and laying plans for transcontinental service. Two years later Denver was connected to New York, and in 1915 lines connected San Francisco and New York telephones. Demand was so great that in the next 15 years three additional transcontinental lines were completed.

The third network of electric lines, power transmission lines, owe their spread to the successful development of quite a number of devices, notably dynamos, electric lights, electric motors, and transformers. In 1870 Zenobe T. Gramme of Belgium built the first commercially successful dynamos for the electroplating industry. In 1876 Thomas Edison turned from telegraph improvements-that had been his main concern until then-to the problems of electric lighting and power. In 1882 he opened his Pearl Street generating station, which provided electricity to a small area in Lower Manhattan. The first hydroelectric generating station, at Appleton WI, went into service that same year. In 1890 George Westinghouse's transmission line, from Willamette Falls to Portland OR, a distance of 12 miles, went into service, and the following year a 3-mile line at Telluride, CO and a 100-mile line to Frankfurt, Germany, went into service. The use of electricity by local governments, by individuals, and by industries grew rapidly, as did the size of distribution systems. In 1909 Louis A. Ferguson in his Presidential Address to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers described the time as an " Age of Centralization " , and an excellent example of this is the distribution system made possible by the Shoshone Line that opened that same year.

Thus, three networks of electrical lines spread across the country. Each of them grew from a single line to a dense web connecting all urban areas in a period of about 40 years: for the telegraph, from the 1840s to the 1880s; for the telephone and for power transmission, from the 1880s to the 1920s. The telegraph and telephone networks grew, for the most part, from east to west. The power network, on the other hand, grew from many centers. Some of the most important ones were in the Midwest, such as Samuel Insull's system in Illinois, and in the West, such as Colorado's system which included the Shoshone Transmission Line.

Frederik Nebeker, Ph.D.

2003 ©IEEE History Center