Daily Archives: April 7, 2015

What Lord Kelvin Saw in Schenectady

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LordKelvininSchenectadyhigherres.jpgYesterday we tried to identify the many, many scientific, engineering and industrial luminaries pictured in this photograph, taken at the Schenectady General Electric Works. So, what were they all up to?

In September of 1897, Lord and Lady Kelvin were the guests of Mr. and Mrs. Spencer Trask “at their country seat on Union avenue, Saratoga,” according to “Electricity, a Popular Electrical Journal.” A reception was given at their home, the day after which a large party descended upon the General Electric Works at Schenectady for a tour.

The Iron Age reported that on Sept. 23, Lord Kelvin and the group were conducted through the works, starting at Building No. 9, where heavy machinery was constructed. “This building was crowded with dynamo parts in all stages of completion . . . This building contains some very large planers, and the largest boring mill ever built.” They then toured the testing room. “Connected to this building and forming part of it is the machine shop and shipping department, a total length of 1330 feet, all under one roof, with electric traveling cranes running from end to end carrying the unfinished parts to their respective assembling points, and the finished machines finally to the shipping department end. They viewed electrical generators and railway generators destined for the NYC Fourth and Sixth Avenue lines and Boston’s transit, and transformers headed to Niagara Falls.

In Building 15, they saw how armature coils were wound and no doubt some of the advances developed by Charles Proteus Steinmetz, looking at long distance transmission equipment. “An interesting experiment in high voltage currents was then made by C.P. Steinmetz. An arc was sprung between two metallic points, some 15 inches apart, with the current at a pressure of 180,000 to 200,000 volts, and drawn out to a length of about 5 feet, until it could no longer hold.” This was the artificial lightning for which Steinmetz was well known.” Electrical Engineer was a bit more effusive in its description, raising the pressure to 250,000 volts, explaining that at the first test, the brass points broke down, but “the second resulted in a splendid arc, which before it snapped away twisted and coiled till it could not have been less than 30 inches in length. Tests were also shown of breaking with new fuses and Thomson magnetic blowout currents of 750 h.p. and upward, with no more fuss than is made by an ordinary arc lamp when a hard bit of carbon sticks in its crop.” And we all now how little fuss that is.

Then they viewed the railway motors, going to Building 23 to see the new surface contact system. “The overhead trolley wire is superseded by a series of small cast iron disks set in the pavement in parallel rows between the rails of the track, each disk convexed to about 1 inch above the surface, at distances of about 4 feet. The disk near to one rail is the positive disk, that near the other the negative disk. In this system only those disks immediately under the car are alive; all the others are without current. The current is brought to the positive disks by an automatic magnetic switch, which is set with a number of others in a manhole, instead of being buried in the street near its own disk. The car is provided with a small storage battery and with two long shoes suspended beneath it, touching always one or two disks.”

“After witnessing the operation of this system, the party mounted the search light tower, whence a splendid bird’s-eye view of the entire works was had. Descending this the party was grouped at the base and photographed.”

After seeing how to start a streetcar, they saw a new way to stop them, with a demonstration of the electric brake on car No. 9 of the Schenectady Street Railway. “The moment the car is stopped and no current is flowing from the controller the motors become very powerful dynamos, which turn their current into the coil of that one of the disks which is attached to the motor. It then becomes a very powerful electromagnet with a strong power of attraction…”

Electrical Engineer gave a detailed description of what was shown to Lord Kelvin, saying that among the demonstrations, “none possessed more interest to the electrical railway engineer than the acceleration test made upon the experimental track which runs along the heel path of the Erie Canal for a distance of nearly two miles.” The demonstration was on a car intended for use on elevated railways, which were required to deal with quick stops and quick starts. “Quick stopping is . . . well taken care of by both air and electric brakes, leaving rapid acceleration as the point needing attention. Realizing this, the General Electric Company has been experimenting for the past several months with the idea of determining at what rate of acceleration the passengers would be annoyed.”

Asked to express an opinion on his visit, Lord Kelvin said: ‘I am enjoying myself very much and learning enormously. There are no shops in the world like these; they are among the great wonders of America.'”

More than 20 years later, R.R. Bowker  made a casual mention of the event in the minutes of a meeting of the Association of Edison Illuminating Companies, of which Lord Kelvin was an honorary member,

“whom we elders saw more or less of, both in New York and at his English home. Scotchmen always have a little bit of dialect . . . and Lord Kelvin had this also, and he was absolutely simple and modest. I suppose, really, he carried about in his head more knowledge than any man of his time, perhaps any man of any time, because he had not only the practical equipment which is so marked in Edison, but he also had the highest degree of scientific and technical educated training. Nevertheless, he was the most modest of men. I remember going with him once from New York to Saratoga, where we stayed with Spencer Trask, and then went on to the works of the General Electric Company at Schenectady, in the early days of the electric railway development. While he was at Saratoga for a time, he went out on the place and was talking with one of the farm hands, and that farm hand then had the most wonderful appreciation for this interesting gentleman. What happened was that Lord Kelvin, who was always asking questions was letting this man talk, for he had the faculty of always exacting from any an whom he met some information, which he, who knew most of all, could still utilize.

“We went on to Schenectady, and I have a mental picture of going into that old trolley car which some of you may remember at Schenectady, and Kelvin insisted that the floor should be torn up, so that he could get down on his knees and watch the operation of the motor under the car.

“It certainly is an honor to this Association that it can count that great man on its list of honorary members.”