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The 1950s (1950-1959)

By the start of the 1950s, the Depression had long since ended. World War II was over. And after years of uncertainty, it seemed like happy days finally lay ahead. Americans were getting back on their feet financially, new construction was booming, increased industrial production was creating new jobs, and the age of electronics promised great things technologically. But in June 1950, America found

By the start of the 1950s, the Depression had long since ended. World War II was over. And after years of uncertainty, it seemed like happy days finally lay ahead. Americans were getting back on their feet financially, new construction was booming, increased industrial production was creating new jobs, and the age of electronics promised great things technologically. But in June 1950, America found itself at war again. This time, it was the Korean War (1950-53). The military struggle in Korea to contain the spread of communism once again brought economic and defense production controls and regulations and more material shortages.

According to EC&M archives, metal shortages hit the electrical industry hard. As defense production sped up, a lack of copper took its toll on the electrical market. “Lack of copper is already slowing down expansion of new defense plants and facilities, and conversion of existing plants for defense or defense-supporting production,” reports EC&M in 1950. Somewhat less severe were steel shortages, yet they still slowed production of important products like conduit, low-voltage distribution equipment, and lighting fixtures. Zinc, used for galvanizing conduit, also became extremely difficult to find, affecting conduit production.

As concern for this lack of natural resources peaked, so did the nation's preoccupation with communism and the “bomb” — as demonstrated in the infamous McCarthy hearings in 1950. According to IBEW's “They Dared to Dream,” despite an expanding economy, “fear of communism and possible aggression by the Soviet Union and China hung like a dark cloud over the country. Senator Joseph McCarthy's hearings on un-American activities and the building of backyard bomb shelters kept most Americans worrying their way through much of the 1950s.”

Reflecting the Cold War competition between the United States and the USSR for supremacy, President Dwight D. Eisenhower (elected in 1952 and 1956) ushered in the age of modern space exploration with the formation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958. Such advances directly affected the electrical engineering community, uniting the electrical profession with science and national security. In fact, at the end of the decade, one-third of the country's scientists and engineers in universities worked on government research — mainly defense projects.

But as the 1960s neared, signs of change were inevitable. The roots of the civil rights movement were in place, the Beat Generation writers expressed anti-establishment ideals, and traditional values began to erode as the hippie generation was born.

Electrical Modernization

In 1950, about one quarter of the $2.2 billion electrical construction market went to electrical modernization, EC&M reports. Editors note that more buildings are becoming electrically obsolete each year, making these facilities unable to incorporate necessary electrical equipment. Optimum lighting intensities have tripled. Power requirements are up substantially. The growth of electric heat, air conditioning, water heating, and cooling are accelerating at a rate far beyond the expectations of the prewar era. “During the last two years, capital investment in industry has shown a decided shift from new plant expansion to existing plant modernization, which will include extensive electrical work. The field of electrical modernization today presents the most important area for creative market development confronting the electrical industry.”

Air-Conditioning Boom

Though air-conditioning sales began to soar in the early ’50s, an enormous segment of the market remained untouched. This created a business boom for electrical contractors. According to Editor W. T. Stuart in a 1951 article, window and console “room coolers” have opened up tremendous opportunities in the residential air conditioning market. Once considered a luxury to the average homeowner, room coolers have made residential air conditioning affordable. The effect of this trend on wiring has been quite impressive, notes Stuart. Although a few of the smaller window-mounted units can be carried on existing wiring circuits and connected to plug receptacles, the majority require new branch circuits and often considerable alteration of feeders and panelboards. The capacity and efficiency of the apparatus is directly dependent upon adequate wiring design. “Electrical industry people, whether they feel they are directly concerned with air conditioning application or not, have a real and important stake in its future development,” writes Stuart. “We ought to lend every encouragement to its growth.”

Industrial Distribution Systems Take Off

In 1951, D. L. Beeman, manager of the Industrial Power Division at General Electric Co., Schenectady, N.Y., describes the recent acceleration of the load center distribution market. The growing utilization of load center distribution systems, plug-in busways, greater short-circuit protection, higher secondary voltages, and power systems with grounded neutrals offer modernization and new construction projects for electrical workers. What's driving this growth? Compared with old-style live bus-fuse-and-switchboards, modern load centers are less expensive, safer, more flexible, expandable, and less affected by voltage drop. According to Beeman, the trend toward using higher voltages will continue. “More and more plants are adopting 480V instead of 240V secondary systems because 480V systems have from 25% to 50% lower losses and greater flexibility,” he says. “In fact, many plants are now actually modernizing by changing from 240V to 480V operation.”

New Frontiers in Lighting

In the July 1951 edition, EC&M editors highlight recent developments in lighting design and application. The article explains that designers are studying better brightness ratios between the visual task and the surrounding production areas. Many manufacturers have designed better shielding against glare from reflector units. Some lighting engineers even advocate open-top reflectors, and one manufacturer makes a luminous (plastic) side reflector to provide soft illumination of ceilings in industrial plants. In street and highway lighting, incandescent light sources are still used predominantly. However, mercury vapor units have proven to be both practical and popular, while fluorescent lighting installations remain experimental. Recreational and sports lighting has rapidly expanded in the past 15 years. According to the article, higher lighting levels combined with improved quality promise a profitable market for many years to come.

Christmas Lighting Carves a Niche

“Now is the time to sell and install decorative and spectacular outdoor lighting for the Yuletide ahead,” writes Berlon C. Cooper in a 1952 article. According to the author, the outdoor Christmas lighting market holds tremendous potential for electrical contractors in the early ’50s. To perform this type of work, all a contractor needs is weatherproof wiring and a wide variety of floodlights, PAR lamps, color roundels, colored lamps, and decorative devices. He reminds readers of the broad scope of this application — every city, town, and village is a prospect. Furthermore, within every municipality lie community and shopping centers, stores, churches, public buildings, apartments, and industrial buildings — all of which are potential customers.

Electric Power From Atoms

According to a 1952 article, a nuclear reactor produced electric power for the first time on December 21, 1952 in Arco, Idaho. In a trial run, the experimental breeder reactor generated more than 100kW to operate pumps and other reactor equipment and provide light and electrical facilities for the building that houses it. A liquid metal removed the heat energy from the reactor at a temperature high enough to generate steam to drive a turbine. Despite this breakthrough, Dr. Walter H. Zinn, director of Argonne National Laboratory, advises this event is not economically significant yet. “The principal function of the reactor is ‘breeding,’ the long-range goal of converting non-fissionable material into fissionable material more rapidly than nuclear fuel is consumed,” he says. “It may be some time before it is known whether the ‘breeding’ operation is successful.” Total construction costs on this project totaled $2,700,000 — with approximately $2,500,000 spent over a four-year period for research and engineering development.

Is Aluminum the Answer?

It's happened twice in 10 years to the electrical industry — copper becomes scarce, is rationed, and then regulated under government controls, writes Editor W. T. Stuart in a 1952 article. “As a major user of copper, [government] contributes a major share to the insatiable demands of mobilization and war,” he says. “Only a small increase in the rate of supply can be expected.”

The word goes out to substitute, but electrical requirements are not that flexible. Stuart explains silver is the only electrical substitute for copper. Yet it is far less abundant and much more expensive. As an alternative, aluminum comes within practical reach for electrical conductivity, Stuart writes. However, it is just as strictly controlled as copper these days. The good news is aluminum has a distinct advantage: The market can increase its supply in a very short time.

Although the technology of aluminum conductor installation is advanced, it is not foolproof, warns Stuart. He says this work is best in large conductor-sized or well-manned and competently supervised work. According to the article, acceptance of aluminum conductors by electrical contractors is poor. For example, in a sample of contractors with aluminum experience, half reported they do not believe it is satisfactory for interior wiring systems. About half the remainder found it satisfactory in larger sizes. Less than 20% believe it is satisfactory for general use.

Utilization Trends

In the first economic trends report issued by EC&M in 1954, editors take a comprehensive look at the electrical industry and provide a detailed analysis of market conditions. “Frontiers in power, heat, and light are moving forward under the pressures of prosperous times, industry ingenuity, and an evidently insatiable public demand for the benefits of modern electrification,” reports the article. “The cost of energy has been held down during a long inflationary spiral with the result that electrical energy has gained powerfully in competitive position with respect to other methods and fuels.”

Unchallenged in power and light, electrical energy is moving into the field of heat. Why? Editors report it holds a long lead in refrigeration and air conditioning. It is gaining ground in commercial cookeries. It is piling up phenomenal statistics in domestic cooking and water heating. In a few areas, electrical industry professionals are even prying their way into space heating — a staggering potential market. The analysis goes on to discuss spectacular developments in motors that focus on size and speed. These include tiny instrument motors, irrigation pump motors of several thousand horsepower, and motors that operate at speeds of 100,000 rpm. Adjustable-speed drives, amplidynes, and electric controllers are greatly extending the area of speed control. Lighting has made spectacular progress since the introduction of the fluorescent lamp. In fact, editors write: “The better modern work is so far ahead of past standards that relighting alone has enormous potentials for the electrical industry.”

Autotronic Elevator Control

In the March 1954 issue, EC&M covers an entirely new concept of fully automatic electronic control: autotronic elevator control. According to the article, this technology has established new efficiency standards in large office buildings, hotels, hospitals, and department stores faced with constant, heavy elevator traffic. “These new systems practically think for themselves and can operate effectively without a starter in the lobby or without attendants on individual cars,” the editor says. The article goes on to explain the benefits of this technology. Specifically, these units readily adjust their patterns of operation to cope with changing traffic requirements throughout the day, coordinate the operation of individual cars to obtain maximum group effectiveness, promptly readjust themselves whenever momentary surges of traffic disrupt normal requirements, and completely eliminate human elements of fatigue and delayed mental reaction that can result in slow starts or stops and inaccurate interpretation of signals. This new concept of vertical transportation is supervising the operation of hundreds of elevators across the country. In fact, public acceptance is growing so rapidly that more than 80% of the Otis Elevator Company's new office building installations now incorporate provisions for “supervisorless-operatorless” programming.

Low-Voltage Control for Modern Living

In 1955, C. Kenneth Kolstad, founder and president of K & R Electric Service, Inc., Alfred Station, N.Y., presents a practical case study for understanding low-voltage control in residential applications. In this rural upstate New York deluxe residence, the modern control system features low-voltage relays, remote operation of 33 units by manual and motorized master switches, photocell monitor for automatic daybreak checkup, plus a dual-frequency automobile radio transmitter for turning house lights on or off when approaching or leaving the residence by car.

Kolstad notes the most outstanding modern feature in this home is an unusually extensive eight-point control system that includes: low-voltage switching of lights from multiple points so illumination may be controlled manually from all room entrances, exits, and convenience points; motorized master switches or car-installed radio transmitters that can switch 25 circuits in a single operation; autotransformer dimmers for ceiling and floor circuits that permit downlight (and table lamp) brightness control in living and dining areas; the volume of musical transcriptions can be regulated remotely from either the master bedroom, any telephone station, the front hallway, porch, or kitchen; and zone thermostats that control circulation pumps in the hot-water oil-burner system and regulate winter temperatures.

Atomic Power Plant Construction is a Go

According to the July 1956 issue of EC&M, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) has approved construction of three atomic power plants: Commonwealth Edison in Chicago ($45 million plant); Consolidated Edison in New York ($55 million unit); and Yankee Atomic Electric Co. in New England ($34.5 million project to be built at Rowe, Mass.). The article says the Commonwealth Edison and Consolidated Edison projects will be financed with private money, while the Yankee project has AEC financing for research and development up to $5 million.

Lighting the Empire State Beacon

Characterized as the brightest man-made light source in the world in a 1956 article, a spectacular new electronic tiara (incorporating four far-reaching night beacons) now crowns New York City's Empire State Building. Placed at 1092 ft above ground level, these lights can be seen from as far away as Boston and Baltimore under ideal conditions. According to the article, the four beacons combined generate close to 2 billion candlepower. These 1-ton beacons are mounted on elevated and rotating mechanisms. One light is placed on each of the building's four sides at the base of the seven-channel television tower. Costs for this project totaled $250,000.

Scientist and Engineer Shortage

“The United States is running into a serious shortage of scientists and engineers. And there has been mounting alarm about what this shortage may mean for both our national security and our prosperity,” reports EC&M in May 1956. According to the article, the problem is not a decrease in the number of engineers and scientists graduating from college. (About one in 148 in the labor force of 1940 was a scientist or engineer. In 1956, the ratio was about one in 80.) Rather, it is the sharp increase in industry, government, and educational needs that have raised the demand for those technically trained individuals. The article explains this demand is fueled by the phenomenal growth of research in the last 15 years. For example, $900 million was spent on research in 1941. This total rose to more than $5 billion by 1953. According to estimates by the Engineers' Joint Council and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the industry needs 40,000 new engineers each year for the next 10 years to meet the demand. In 1955, the country's universities and colleges graduated only 23,000 engineers, which is only enough to cover replacement needs without allowing for any expansion in the number of active engineers.

A New Breed of “Bonus Babies”

The starting salaries offered to June college graduates give the impression that the industry is creating a new breed of “bonus babies,” EC&M reports in 1957. Borrowed from baseball vernacular, the term refers to “sturdy youngsters whose talent for hitting and throwing gets them payment of up to $100,000 and other benefits for signing a contract.” Editors reveal that the industry's demand for college graduates (especially in science and engineering) has outrun the number of those actually receiving degrees. As a result, “competition for these young people has steadily pushed up the starting salaries and has induced many companies to indulge in lavish recruiting programs. This year, engineering graduates are being offered well over $400 a month. Only 10 years ago, the salaries offered senior engineering students averaged less than $250 a month.”

Electrical Workers' Earnings On the Rise
Year Avg. Weekly
Avg. Weekly
Avg. Hourly
1953 39.3 $111.61 $2.51
1954 38.6 $112.71 $2.92
1955 39.1 $116.52 $2.98
1956 39.5 $125.61 $3.18
1957 39.2 $132.10 $3.37

The Challenges of Highway Lighting

In a 1957 editorial, Editor W. T. Stuart discusses the nation's highway construction boom and how it is bringing both opportunities and challenges for electrical contractors. Projected to take about 13 years, this 41,000-mi interstate system (authorized for 90% federal aid) is the largest road building project of all time, writes Stuart. He says the importance of highway lighting is illustrated best by one study of 28 locations, which revealed the average annual fatality rate dropped 68% in the first year after lighting projects. “It hardly needs statistics to confirm the common experience that good fixed roadway illumination is an inherent aid to safety in any area of driver decision,” he says.

What are the main objectives of this lighting initiative? Modern fixed lighting systems are needed at interchanges, bridges, underpasses, tunnels, entrance and exit ramps, areas of motorist decision, and continuous roadways, in urban areas, and between closely spaced interchanges. This calls for the professional services of consulting electrical engineers, the knowledge and experience of electrical contractors for both installation and maintenance, and the helpful cooperation of adjoining public utilities and municipal electrical departments.

1958 Electrical Objectives

In September 1957, EC&M editors summarize current trends in the economy and significant indexes in electrical construction, installation, and maintenance activities to help readers plan their 1958 business strategies. In the analysis, editors identify the following trends. Electrical work continues to take an increasing share of the building dollar in new construction and an even larger proportion of expenditures for the modernization of existing buildings. In new construction, modern electrical systems are required to serve a growing load per unit of area in almost all occupancies. Advancing appliance use and lighting in homes are bringing higher standards of electrical adequacy in residential wiring installation, with a consequent increase in the proportion of 100A and larger service equipments, 12- and 16-circuit distribution panels, special-purpose outlets, and built-in lighting devices. Industrial loads are increasing in drive horsepower and powered materials handling. Control, instrumentation, and communications involve increasingly elaborate equipment and associated wiring systems. Accepted lighting levels are doubling every 10 years. Industrial air conditioning, which is now catching on, will require substantial increases in electrical system capacity in the future. The use of primary and secondary networks with large margins of spare capacity to provide for flexibility and load growth will increase. Gains in commercial building wiring requirements are reflecting rapid changes in lighting techniques, such as wall-to-wall translighted ceilings, increased use of accent lighting, and air conditioning. Improved lighting standards for new schools and institutions are also affecting market potentials for electrical work in this increasingly urgent segment of new construction activity. In the modernization of existing buildings, the market potentials for electrical work are on a strong upward trend. Sparked by urgent needs to supply air-conditioning equipment, these projects involve extensive new electrical systems and changes often comparable in size and complexity to electrical work in a new building of the same size.

High-Capacity Wiring for Modern Homes

“House wiring is big business — and getting bigger,” EC&M reports in 1957. The million or more new homes built each year represent almost one third of all construction — with electrical work running in the hundreds of millions of dollars. According to the article, the most apparent marks of modern high-capacity layouts in current wiring designs are:

  • Increased use of built-in appliances and cooking units.

  • Increased use of fixed lighting, including recessed and valance equipment.

  • Increased use of wall switch control and, particularly, multipoint switching and master switching.

  • Increased use of outdoor lighting/receptacle outlets.

  • Special outlets for fixed equipment and appliances.

  • Phone, intercom, hi-fi, and TV outlets/raceways.
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