Mysteries from the Morgue: Why were GE's High Voltage Lab engineers known as 'lightning wizards'?
"I think we are making history."
Just seconds before Karl B. McEachron, one of General Electric's so-called "Lightning Wizards," spoke, a 15-million volt man-made lightning bolt ripped across the room, jumping the 50-foot gap between two generators. The feat was part of a demonstration on the opening day of the company's new High Voltage Engineering Laboratory.
And indeed, history was made that day, June 23, 1949, as GE topped the previous record of 5-million volts of man-made lightning jumping a span of 30-feet. That record, also held by GE engineers, was accomplished in the Pittsfield plant's previous facility.
In another demonstration, 10-million volts of man-made lightning knocked out the power to a miniature city, which later, fitted with lightning arresters pioneered by GE, stayed lit after being struck with the same voltage.
"I remember in 1913," McEachron, manager of engineering, said. "when we had summer storms with lightning, frequently transmission lines would go out and the town was in darkness for two or three hours and everything stopped. You never hear of a suspension insulator failing today, or a transmission line falling down."
Julius H. Hagenguth, engineer in charge of the laboratory, explained to the crowd of some 50 newspaper and radio men, that the lab's research, as it had been for the prior 36 years, focused on the study of lightning and preventing the destruction caused by its high-voltage strikes. Research at the lab already had led to better grounding of transmission lines, which are highly susceptible to lightning strikes. Further research, he said, could only lead to the development of more cost-efficient insulation and transformers.
"We will use our equipment to reduce these costs to some irreducible level," he said. "With some projects, we will probably have success in a short time; other, more difficult ones, may take from five to 10 years."
The laboratory building, located between Merrill Road and Tyler Street Extension, was described by The Eagle as being able to be contained within the then six-floor England Brothers building on North Street with "only the chinaware department to spare."
Lab could fit inside England Brothers
"The big bay is 5 feet shorter than the six-floor department store, 15 feet longer and 5 feet narrower," the June 23, 1949, report stated. A small power substation, able to provide power for a community of 10,000, powered the lab and its equipment.
For the casual observer, the research facility would have highly resembled the laboratory of the 1931 classic, "Frankenstein." Both were filled with impulse generators, towering banks of transformers, transmission lines and bolts of electricity jumping between large shining spheres. But unlike the mad scientist intent on breathing life into Boris Karloff's monster, GE's lightning wizards had first studied and then replicated the high-voltage bolts with the end product saving lives and preventing destruction.
GE's foray into the study of high voltage began in the barn of Charles Proteus Steinmetz in Schenectady, N.Y., in 1900. Steinmetz, a German-born engineer later known as the "mathematical wizard," "The Wizard of Schenectady" and "The Forger of Thunderbolts," would push GE to create a research laboratory, which originally opened in Schenectady in 1901. Pittsfield's high voltage lab opened in 1914.
Steinmetz would soon bring Frank W. Peek Jr. into the fold at GE. Peek began working for the company in 1905 and joined Steinmetz's consulting engineering department in 1909. In 1911, he earned his master of electrical engineering from Union College, where Steinmetz served as a professor. In March 1922, Steinmetz unveiled a 120,000-volt lightning generator.
Then in September 1923, Peek, who had been transferred to Pittsfield in 1916, along with engineers Guiseppi Caccioli and William S. Moody, produced the first 1-million volt lightning bolt in the Pittsfield lab. By 1928, the lab had produced bolts of lightning of 2-million volts and 3.6-million volts, resulting in the development of lightning arresters for transmission wires, grounding wires, proper insulation and more aimed at warding off lightning strikes. Feats of generating bolts of lightning of 5-million and 10-million volts would be accomplished by the end of 1932. McEachron had joined the Pittsfield works by this point and was busy studying natural lightning.
Lightning does strike twice
Around 1936, the partnership between the Pittsfield lab and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology would bring McEachron and his studies to New York City during the summers, where the Empire State Building became a central focus. There, a lab on Fifth Avenue, equipped with a "high-speed" camera, photographed the Empire State Building during lightning storms. In 1940, after several summers of research, McEachron's published findings included the fact that lightning bolts did not fully generate in the clouds, but instead, were the product of two sparks that met mid-air, one rising from the ground, the other coming from the thunderheads. His research, which concluded the Empire State Building acted as a giant lightning rod, noted that 80 percent of the lightning strikes at the iconic tower began with bolts rising from the Earth and traveling upward toward the sky. And, he wrote, lightning can and does strike the same place twice — in several instances, it struck the same place 125 times over the course of several minutes.
In 1940, GE celebrated 20 years of lightning research with the addition of an octagonal lightning observatory atop building 42. Pittsfield researchers could track storms over the Berkshires in any direction with the aid of two high-speed cameras. Nearly a decade later, in 1949, the High Voltage Engineering Lab opened its new $2 million building, celebrating the ingenuity of those who had come before and a bright future. Over the next several decades, research conducted by the lab would include contracts with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to determine the effect of lightning on the electrical systems of aircraft, missiles and space vehicles. Contracts with NASA also included lightning protection of its rocket-launching facility in Florida, then still known as Cape Canaveral.
The story of the High Voltage Engineering Lab is long in the city of Pittsfield but also tied to the high power transformer division, the main focus of its research. That division was moved out of the Pittsfield plant in 1987. Use of Building 9, home of the high voltage lab, was discontinued by GE in 2003. The building was demolished unceremoniously in 2013. Today, there is very little left to identify the location of the building where the lightning wizards through bolts without clouds in what was once touted as the "world's largest man-made lightning center."
Sources: The Berkshire Eagle Archives
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