Tom Blalock: A fond farewell to 'The Lab'



Recently, I drove out Tyler Street Extension to view the ongoing demolition of Building 9 in the former General Electric plant which once had been a world-renowned center of high voltage and lightning research, the GE High Voltage Laboratory.

Amidst the heaps of rubble inside the skeletal steel column and beam framework still standing, I noticed a large pile of shiny sheet metal. Since I had worked in this building from 1966 to 1974, I recognized this debris as having been the walls and ceiling of a special room that was known as Test Area 5.

The performance of high voltage insulating devices (made of porcelain, glass, etc.) located outdoors is very much a function of the weather. In this roughly 40-foot square, two-story-high room, both temperature and humidity could be regulated over a large range in order to simulate various weather conditions. Rain, ice, and even fog could be created in order to determine the insulating ability of devices under such conditions.

I recall one instance where a customer required an insulating structure to be tested while subjected to an outrageously high amount of simulated rainfall. I believe a special hose line had to be run in from a fire hydrant outdoors in order to even obtain this amount of water. Being frustrated comedians, the technicians in charge of setting up this test decided to label this quantity of water with a special name. They called it "One Noah."

A High Voltage Laboratory had existed in the plant since 1914, and Building 9 was constructed in 1949. The primary need for such a facility was for the testing of new insulation structures in the large power transformers built there. These transformers not only had to withstand increasingly greater operating voltage levels throughout the 20th century, but also the vicious surges created by lightning strikes to the long transmission lines which these transformers were connected with.

The effects of natural lightning were simulated at the lab using tall, imposing stacks of elements called capacitors which could be charged to a high voltage and then suddenly discharged at an even higher voltage so as to mimic an actual lightning strike to a piece of electric power equipment. Formally, these devices were known as impulse generators, but they were sometimes referred to as "lightning machines." In a 1969 article in the publication Popular Science, they were even called "thunderbolt machines."

There were two large impulse generators in the High Bay that were visually impressive, being composed of alternating black and aluminum sections. These machines had been constructed in 1949 using some new parts and some parts that had been kept in storage for nearly a decade because they had been used to build somewhat smaller such generators for the General Electric exhibit of the 1939 World's Fair in New York City.

At the fair, visitors were treated to an artificial lightning discharge of 10 million volts over a distance of 30 feet. In later years, a similar demonstration was featured as part of Open House events at the Pittsfield GE plant for employees' families and friends.

Since the generators in Building 9 were larger than those at the World's Fair, the resulting lightning discharge was at 15 million volts and over a correspondingly greater distance. This "showmanship," however, was tougher on the impulse generators than routine testing. Therefore, it was eventually decided to discontinue such displays for fear of causing serious damage to the aging machines.

During the latter half of the 20th century, the High Voltage Laboratory became more involved with contract work that had little or nothing to do with large power transformers. A significant such contract was with NASA for the lightning protection of their rocket-launching facility in Florida, then still known as Cape Canaveral. Later, a similar such effort was undertaken for NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center to provide lightning protection for a string of unmanned satellite tracking stations around the world.

The threat posed by lightning to increasingly sensitive computerized control equipment was also recognized in the aircraft industry. The Lab once received an Air Force contract for the study of lightning surges in the wiring of aircraft. To facilitate this, an actual wing from an Air Force fighter jet was installed in one of the Building 9 test areas to allow for a lengthy series of surge measurements when the wing itself was subjected to artificial lightning discharges. Doubtless, all air travelers today unknowingly benefit from what was learned as a result of this project.

Destructive surges also can occur in high voltage power systems simply as the result of normal switching operations, rather than from lightning strikes. The lab was once engaged to investigate such damaging surges that had been occurring in power systems feeding electric arc furnaces used in the steel industry to melt scrap metal and refine it into usable steel. Thus, these fire-breathing behemoths are actually gigantic recycling machines and, without them, our landscape would be overwhelmed with scrap automobiles.

The large transformers used to power these beasts once were built in the Pittsfield GE plant which accounted for the interest in this power system problem.

That plant, of course, is now gone and Building 9 is nearly so. The impulse generators and other high-voltage testing equipment were scrapped years ago. Possibly all that will ultimately remain of Building 9 will be a set of aluminum letters that once graced the Art Deco-style main entrance. These have been given to the Schenectady Museum which possesses a large collection of General Electric historical artifacts.

Hopefully, the museum (now known as the Museum of Innovation and Science) will find some way to display these letters, which proclaim HIGH VOLTAGE LABORATORY.

Tom Blalock is the author of "Transformers at Pittsfield," a history of the Pittsfield GE transformer plant.


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