When an ice storm knocked out power to more than 420,000 homes in the Kansas City area last month, the area's electric utilities and electrical contractors quickly became quasi-celebrities in town. Residents eagerly awaited the arrival of utility trucks in their neighborhoods; electricians were also working around the clock to repair damage to residents' electrical systems. Milbank Manufacturing, one of the largest electric utility meter manufacturers in the world, happens to be based in Kansas City, and its executives were even on the evening news.
CEE News' cover story beginning on page 12 explored the central role that the Kansas City electrical industry played in helping the city recover from this devastating storm. These articles have much in common with the magazine's coverage of September 11 in its October issue, and how the electrical industry responded to the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Electrical contractors and others in the electrical construction industry have received a ton of positive publicity in the pages of this magazine and elsewhere for their response to these emergency situations. Yet most of the time, electrical contractors work quietly and efficiently behind the scenes, doing a job that's for the most part never seen and seldom appreciated unless something goes wrong.
Camping out in my home for three days without power during the Kansas City ice storm gave me a new appreciation for the quiet but critical role that electrical contractors play in today's society. During those days (with lots of time on my hands for quiet reflection, being without power, phone service or television), I thought about people in the electrical industry who never got credit for their work.
The first person that came to mind was Nikola Tesla. Born in Croatia in 1856, Tesla was a brilliant if somewhat eccentric genius, who invented the fluorescent bulb, vacuum tube amplifier, X-ray machine and “Tesla coils,” still used today in radios, televisions and other electronic equipment. He also helped George Westinghouse develop the first commercially viable AC power system, which in 1895 used dynamos to harness the power of Niagara Falls to produce electricity for the city of Buffalo 22 miles away. Tesla and Westinghouse spent years battling Thomas Edison, who saw AC current as a direct assault on his DC power systems.
Tesla also has never received enough credit for his work on the wireless radio, even though Marconi used many of Tesla's patents for his first wireless radio. Sadly, despite his contributions to these inventions — not to mention his experimentation in a Colorado Springs, Colo., laboratory with the wireless transmission of huge amounts of electricity that he said could be used as a “death ray” — he died penniless in 1943 at age 87 in a New York hotel room that he shared with a flock of pigeons. Tesla's death is cloaked in mystery, because of reports that his papers and technical drawings were removed by the U.S. government.
While I am not aware of any electrical contractors whose contributions can compare with those of Tesla, all can sympathize with the many years that he spent working quietly behind the scenes.