Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Samuel Insull and the Coal-Fired Crisis

The world will not be able to address or reduce greenhouse gases without dealing with the legacy of coal.

While much of the focus has been on crude oil, coal that's burned to produce electricity is responsible for a host of problems.

Most of the world's power is generated from coal-fired plants. There are 1,000 power plants using this fuel planned over the next 10 years. An average of 13 Chinese miners a day die mining it. Even if you don't think global warming is a fact (I'm NOT in that camp), burning coal releases a host of other pollutants such as mercury and particulate matter. And the way the earth's atmosphere works, we're all eventually breathing it.

Reducing our need for coal-fired power should be a priority in every country -- even where coal is plentiful and cheap. Other technologies need to be developed to bring their costs down to the level at which they are competitive.

In order to understand how we came to rely upon coal for electricity, you need to study the life of Samuel Insull, the former Thomas Edison protege who created the modern electrical grid. It was Insull's business plan, which I detail in my book "Merchant of Power," that we use today when we turn on our appliances, get in an elevator or walk under streetlights. His vision of central-station power -- big plants producing lots of electrons for everyone -- is still a part of our infrastructure. We have to change this if we're to survive on this planet.

Here's a paper I presented last night on Insull to the Chicago Literary Club, a 130-year-old institution that supports Chicago writers. I hope you enjoy it.

Samuel Insull and the Creation of the Modern Age
By John F. Wasik

Read before the Chicago Literary Club November 12, 2007.

Life is so often about confluences, two streams coming together to form a wider, stronger artery whose flow reshapes the land around it. The past is eroded and re-sculpted where this river flows. To understand our present, there was no better intersection of the currents of the old and new world than the year 1893, the year in which the modern age took shape. It wasn't a time, however, that we would recognize. Disease and pestilence plagued major cities. Only a handful of buildings had electric lighting. Children still worked in coal mines and factories. Late 19th-century cities were choking on filthy air, tenements, brothels, saloons and water that routinely sickened hundreds of thousands.

Although it was trying to present the face of modernity by entertaining some 21 million visitors during the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago was such a place. What a scene of contrasts, though! The gleaming White City with its combination of Beaux Arts facades, electric trolleys, a Midway with a giant Ferris Wheel and thousands of things most Americans had never seen on such a scale: electric light bulbs and motors.

Beyond the fair, created by the joint talents of Daniel Hudson Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted, lay the milieu that was Chicago, the fastest-growing city on earth at the time. Thousands of saloons served up their potables because the drinking water from the lake was constantly tainted with the offal of slaughterhouses and raw sewage. Built on a complex series of poorly drained wetlands in the Chicago River basin, the city naturally sent its discharges into the lake. Despite efforts to build pipes ever further out into the largest source of freshwater within the U.S., the poison swill led to typhoid and cholera outbreaks until city engineers reversed the flow of the Chicago in 1900 to push the massive effluent downriver into the Mississippi.

The public health crisis took a back seat to the exhibition that year, as Chicago not only celebrated its growth, but its role as the champion of the new civilization. The electrical genius Nicola Telsa was there to demonstrate the spectacle of running a million volts through the third rail of his lanky frame. It helped immensely that he was wearing rubber boots during his show. After the fair, nearly every major city would see the power of his idea -- alternating current -- and wire their cities using his technology, the operating system of the 20th Century. They wanted the power to illuminate their streets and rid them of the horse-drawn trolleys, which resulted in millions of tons of manure, yet another source for disease.

Seeing the light of the future in the city of broad shoulders was Samuel Insull, a bulldog of a businessman who cashed in his General Electric stock after virtually starting the company for Thomas Edison in New York. Insull also saw the potential to not only electrify entire cities but give their citizenries electric lights, irons, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators and 24-hour service. His Chicago Edison company and subsequent acquisitions created the modern electrical grid. Insull began his empire by consolidating tiny Chicago Edison with other small generating companies.

At the time Chicago Edison had one building on Adams Street that did triple duty as its headquarters, dynamo room and coal bin. Having accepted the Chicago job for $12,000 -- a drastic pay cut compared to the $36,000 he was making with GE -- he knew that electrical rates were uncompetitive with gas when he arrived in the Windy City. In fact, power at the time cost 50 percent more than the dim, dangerous gas used to illuminate most homes and buildings. He then proceeded to cut electrical rates to 20 cents a kilowatt hour and kept on cutting until he reached 2 1/2 cents per kilowatt hour in 1909 (we pay about 8 cents an hour today).

Insull's aggressive economics worked as he gave away flatirons, cut deals to wire homes and factories and unleashed his powerful marketing machine whose credo was "early to bed, early to rise, advertise, advertise, advertise!" In 1892, his company had 5,000 customers; 14 years later he had 200,000. Along the way Insull brought in power meters, created state utility commissions, built the opera house and ended up serving some 6,000 communities across the country.

While Insull saw the fair as a business opportunity, Olmsted, the godfather of modern landscape architecture and urban planning, had his feet firmly planted in the "City Beautiful" philosophy of making cities habitable. Having designed Jackson Park, New York's Central Park and the first planned suburb Riverside, Olmsted wanted the fair to reflect the spiritual values conveyed by open space. His parks, planned with his partner Calvert Vaux, were graced by abundant meadows, gentle ponds and curving promenades. Olmsted put those ideas into practice in the wake of the Civil War, when he served as an administrator in the forerunner of the Red Cross.

The Riverside Improvement Company was building an entirely new community on the banks of the Des Plaines River, just eight miles west of Chicago. It would be linked to the city by a rail line and take the idea of the suburb and turn it into something that could be dignified, serene and yet highly functional. Large homes on serpentine streets and open areas called Long Meadows conveyed a sense of rural detachment. Yet Riverside had a town center, although it wasn’t the traditional town square. A citadel-like water tower designed by William LeBaron Jenney, one of the first architects of the skyscraper, dominated the middle of town, a powerful reminder that this was a progressive community with a safe, controlled water supply. The water tower lorded over the train station and commercial district like the turret of a baron's castle, suggesting to residents, ``you may live in the bosom of the country, but here's the symbolic feudal connection to civilized world: You're protected." Generous parks and river vistas graced the small community, which hit hard times in the aftermath of the Chicago fire in 1871 and recession in the early 1890s. As such, it was one of the first master-planned, transit-oriented developments, a concept that sorely needs revisiting as every metropolitan area grapples with traffic and sprawl today.

Olmsted stood alongside Burnham as a pillar of 19th-century urban planning. Central and Prospect Parks in New York were his gems, although he would also be known for landscaping the mammoth Vanderbilt Biltmore estate, designing a plan for Stanford University and hundreds of other parks throughout the country. Both men had grandiose, elegant ideas and could implement them with their considerable intelligence, charm and political skills. Where Olmsted was the designer with the all-embracing vision of man in the palm of nature, Burnham was the master planner, architect and promoter. With his firm Burnham and Root having designed the lion's share of the city's most famous buildings, Burnham strived to show the world a Chicago-styled glimpse of the 20th Century.

Chicago was at the vanguard of urban growth and architecture in the three decades following the great fire. In the decade prior to the fair, the skyscraper was born in the city. The production of steel beams through the Bessemer process made taller buildings possible. Before the limits on buildings supported by masonry walls was from 10 to 16 stories. Now steel skeletons and new electric elevators enabled architects to design behemoths that soared much taller. Burnham and his partner John Root had designed the forerunner to the steel-skeleton office building: the 10-story Montauk Building at the corner of Monroe and Dearborn. The first true steel-cage building was constructed by Jenney in 1885. The declining price of structural steel had made it possible for Jenney to build the Home Insurance Building and shift the weight-bearing load from thick exterior walls to the interior frame.

A rival firm captained by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler built the Auditorium building, which was a hotel, opera house and office building. It stood as the colossus in 1893. It was the tallest building in the world at the time, with its charming Tuscan-like tower and hulky stone presence lording over Congress and Michigan.

One of the young men who worked in the tower with Sullivan was his chief assistant Frank Lloyd Wright. Having a need to make more money to support his wife and six children in Oak Park, the former apprentice was to break off on his own in the year of the fair. Much to the consternation of his liebermeister Sullivan, Wright was beginning to form his own opinions on architecture and how it fit into the human sphere. In commissions with Sullivan's firm, Wright did some of the drawings and designs that employed Sullivan's idea of organic ornament. Filigrees of leaves and trees adorn Sullivan buildings. It's as if they sprang out of a meadow or forest. Wright took Sullivan's natural sensibilities further. He wanted homes and buildings to harmonize with the earth and not just depict it.

Burnham saw Wright's talent and wanted to lure him away from Sullivan, so he made a generous offer to Wright, calling his mentor Sullivan a "great decorator." Burnham promised to pay for Wright's education in the Beaux Arts school in Paris plus two additional years in Rome if he would join Burnham and Root upon his graduation.
Wright thanked "Uncle Dan" for his offer, but chose to follow his own course. "It was more than merely generous," Wright would later recall of the proposal. "It was splendid. But I was frightened. I sat embarrassed not knowing what to say."

Eventually Wright did find the words to refuse the powerful sway of Burnham's personality. He took the idea of the Japanese temple that Burnham and Olmsted had placed in the center of the fair's lagoon and created an American style of organic architecture that flaunted convention and embraced natural design at every turn. The Prairie School of Architecture would emerge a few years later, inspired by the aesthetic of that one structure.

Wright was the bridge between the neoclassical sensibilities of Burnham -- who would design American buildings as if they graced a Parisian boulevard -- and the organic insights of Sullivan. The link between Olmsted and the 20th century would be Jens Jensen, who was working up from immigrant laborer in Chicago parks to become its chief designer. Jensen expanded upon Olmsted's embrace of glorious waterscapes and meadows into something more Midwestern, bringing in native plants, flowers, trees, shrubs and bedrock. Employing his Olmsted-inspired palette, Jensen would not only have a hand in most of the great Chicago parks in the 20th century, he would do landscape designs for Henry Ford and Insull. Several of those private commissions would be in concert with Wright. It was the gentle, intuitive Jensen who would build some of Chicago's most splendid parks, believing as Wright and Olmsted did that inviting open spaces were a natural extension of democracy. Humboldt, Garfield and Douglas Parks bear his stamp as does his masterpiece the Lincoln Memorial Garden in Springfield.

Somehow in 1893, if not around that time, the collective genius of Burnham, Sullivan, Wright and Jensen coalesced. Perhaps they met at Jane Addams' Hull House on the near-West side, where there was an active Arts and Craft Society and great thinkers were invited to share their ideas. Insull joined this circle after obtaining a loan from Marshall Field to expand Chicago Edison with the backing of Robert Todd Lincoln, the influential attorney and son of the president. After the fair, Burnham, steeped in the 20th-century vision of a city with overpowering, muscular boulevards and olympian civic centers, moved onto the plan of Chicago, which was introduced in 1909. His ideas were not greeted with fanfare at first. Sullivan, supremely frustrated that modern architecture marched in lockstep with the baroque European look of Burnham, claimed the fair set America back 50 years in terms of architectural progress. Wright agreed with his former employer, yet took a fork in the road with Jensen to create an indigenous prairie style that celebrated the horizontal, broke the box of the conventional home and turned building into an art form that is still celebrated.

In contrast to Burnham's triumphal close to his career, Sullivan fell into despair, debt and alcoholism after the fair, barely able to scrape together a handful of commissions. He ended up designing florid banks in small Midwestern towns. He was almost right about the Beaux Arts school that Burnham espoused dominating American architecture for the next 50 years. Great skyscrapers, with the exception of Burnham's classic Flatiron building in New York, would look far too much like Parisian knockoffs. Wright, who helped support Sullivan in his final years, only managed to design a handful of skyscrapers, most of which were later torn down or never built, including a mile-high building for Chicago.

In 1903, the year in which Olmsted died, the utility-and-rail-tycoon-to-be Insull met Burnham on a train from New York to Chicago and exchanged pleasantries about the latest technology: horseless carriages. When they arrived in the Windy City, they shared Burnham's car for a jaunt to Evanston and "knocked a man over in Edgewater." Insull would heartily back his friend's master plan for the city in 1909 as a leading member of the Commercial Club of Chicago.

Sensible planning meant large buildings along spacious boulevards in Burnham's vision. For Insull, that meant new customers for his electrical service. When they shared that ride to Evanston, Insull had just married the coal-burning, steam turbine with a dynamo to create the first large-scale turbogenerator at his Fisk Street station, which is still running. This quantum leap in technology meant that entire cities could be powered. Every street, office and home could have clean, safe electric lights. Factories could have motors that didn't need inefficient pulleys powered by noisy steam engines. Housewives could throw away those nasty flat irons that constantly burned them. Offices could keep their workers longer and make them more productive. The modern age may have been imagined by Burnham, but it was engineered by Insull.

Like Sullivan and Wright, Burnham and Insull became friends until the end of Burnham's life in 1912. Burnham continued to build and plan, working on finishing the layout for Washington, D.C. and its Union Station. In Chicago, Burnham's firm also built Orchestra Hall, the Railway Exchange and the People's Gas Building, all still proudly shouldering each other on South Michigan Avenue. Insull later opened one of his offices in the Gas Building, but would suffer the humiliation of bankruptcy in 1932. He was acquitted of fraud in three trials in 1934.

I like to believe that these great minds spiritually met in one place: The Ho-o-Den Temple on Wooded Island in the lagoon created by Olmsted behind the Arts Building, which is now the Museum of Science and Industry. During the fair, it would have been a quiet, sylvan refuge in the middle of the bustle of the exposition. Maybe Insull then took an opportunity to sell Wright on wiring his new homes with built-in electric fixtures -- innovations artfully on display in Wright's revolutionary Robie House -- which still sits sphinx-like in disrepair a few blocks away from the island. Maybe Jensen received wisdom from Olmsted on how cities could offer relief and spiritual comfort to its huddled masses in glorious parks with palatial fieldhouses. And quite possibly social reformer Jane Addams was there to exhort the old savants and the young innovators to work together to eliminate squalor and bring natural beauty into the harsh world of the anthroscape, my word for the built environment.

I'm not sure if all of these people had communed at the same time on the same island, but what resulted is an electrified world still fighting with nature. You can still hear and feel the tension of our machine age from the island -- most of it from the din of Lake Shore Drive -- as you walk across Clarence Darrow bridge. It's now a tiny, unkempt Japanese Garden with little signage. Yet you can still feel the powerful karma in this little oasis. What transpired here was a battle between the integrated organic philosophies of Olmsted, Sullivan, Wright and Jensen and the industrial, metro-centric plans of Burnham and Insull.

The organic school's ideas may have been the most elegant, aesthetic and noble, but it was Insull's vision that prevailed; one that continues to power our modern age. It's also a powerful force that still bedevils us. Insull's technology still produces most of the power on the planet by burning coal -- at a great cost in terms of pollution and global warming. We are still searching for a way to use a clean, low-cost fuel to generate massive amounts of electricity and deliver it to where it's consumed. Maybe there is a young man or woman sitting in a school or lab today who has such an idea and can champion it the way Insull brought electricity to the masses. The river of change can flow swiftly -- if it's on course.

John F. Wasik is the author of The Merchant of Power: Samuel Insull, Thomas Edison and the Creation of the Modern Metropolis (www.johnwasik.com).

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