Flowing water turned wheels to grind wheat into flour more than 2,000-years ago. Back then, wind was also turning windmills for grinding and pumping water. Fast forward to the mid-1700s, a French hydraulic engineer wrote of the development of the science of hydraulics.
Beginning with Benjamin Franklin’s experiment with a kite one stormy night in Philadelphia, the principles of electricity gradually became understood.
In 1880, a brush arc light dynamo driven by a water turbine was used to provide theater and storefront lighting in Grand Rapids, Michigan; and in 1881, a brush dynamo connected to a turbine in a flour mill provided street lighting at Niagara Falls, New York.
Before light bulbs, outdoor lighting was via arc lights (lamps that produce light by an electric arc (also called a voltaic arc – through two electrodes separated by a gas.))
The world’s first public electrical supply was provided in late-1881, when the streets of the Surrey town of Godalming in the UK were lit with electric light.
That system was powered from a water wheel on the River Wey and supplied a number of arc lamps within the town. The supply scheme also provided electricity to a number of shops and premises to light 34-incandescent Swan light bulbs.
In 1882, water from the Fox River in Appleton, Wisconsin served the first operational hydroelectric generating station in the United States, producing 12.5 kilowatts of power; the total electrical capacity generated was equivalent to 250-lights.
Shortly thereafter, hydroelectricity that powered public electric lighting made its way to Hawaiʻi.
“This has been a work of great labor and anxiety, and was really only brought to a completion on Monday night. Some days previous to that the Waterworks staff … had laid the necessary piping, bringing the water into the Electric building … was to be turned into the new wheel for the first time in these islands”. (Daily Bulletin, March 21, 1888)
“The conditions of electrical power transmission have been thoroughly studied by competent engineers, and are now so well understood that those conversant with the practical aspects of the subject are well assured that within a few years even the smallest towns and villages will supply themselves with electric light and power plants.”
“The management of an electric power plant requires no unusual scientific knowledge. Once the station has been established it can be carried on by the ordinarily intelligent class of mechanics and workmen who are to be found in every village.” (Daily Bulletin, March 26, 1888)
“Punctually at 7 pm yesterday (March 23, 1888,) the Princess Liliʻuokalani and Princess Kaʻiulani, attended by His Excellency the Hon. LA Thurston, Minister of Interior, arrived at the Electric Light Station in the Valley and was there received by the Superintendent Mr. Faulkner and Mr. Eassie.” (Daily Bulletin, March 24, 1888)
“The moon three quarters full rose brightly in the sky Friday night. The usually dark streets were softly lighted by the lunar rays. Speculation was rife as to whether the electric lights would be turned on or not as it had been announced previously that Friday evening would witness a new era in the civic history of Honolulu.” (Hawaiian Gazette, March 27, 1888)
“A few minutes after 7, HRH (Kaʻiulani) was accommodate with a chair for her feet and under the guidance of Mr. Superintendent Faulkner in full working costume connected the circuits and had the honor of illumining the streets of Honolulu for the first time with the new light.”
“Suddenly as the sun emerging from behind a cloud brightens and gladdens the face of nature, did the turning of that wheel brighten and gladden the anxious intellectual mirrors of the assembled cognoscenti. The work and anxiety of the last few weeks was at an end.”
“Mr. Faulkner immediately hurried away to the town to see the lamps some of which were not burning, but after the lapse of half an hour or so, he had the satisfaction of seeing that all with the exception of 3 or 4 were glowing brightly and steadily; and it is confidently expected that to-night all the lights will burn from the jump.” (Daily Bulletin, March 24, 1888)
“At 7:30 pm the sound of excitement in the streets brought citizens, printers, policemen and all other nocturnal fry rushing outdoors to see what was up. And what they did see was Honolulu lighted by electricity. The long looked for and anxiously expected moment had arrived.” (Hawaiian Gazette, March 27, 1888)
“The lamps are of 2,000-candle power each arranged to burn one side at a time each carbon lasting from six to seven hours. After a carbon is burned out the current is automatically transferred by a lever which immediately trips the other side of the carbon and then that one burns six to seven hours.”
“The Electrical Works are just two and a half miles from Merchant Street up the Nuʻuanu Valley. On a knoll by the roadside on the way to the Pali stands a neatly finished dwelling house thirty three feet front by twenty-seven feet wide the residence of the superintendent and engineer.”
“A few yards to the rear rises an unpretentious looking two story building dimensions forty feet long by thirty feet wide and thirty five feet high to the peak of the roof where the motors and machinery of the electric works are in operation.”
“The water pressure at the wheel is 130-pounds to the square inch. The water power in its impact on the wheel is regulated by a governor operating exactly like that of a steam engine. By the time the turbine is reached the water has come rushing through 6,000-feet of pipe from the head source which is 300-feet above the level of the main in the building.”
“It is estimated that the discharge of water into the turbine is at present 2,000,000-gallons every 24-hours but that the discharge may be 3,000,000-gallons if required.”
“The turbine makes 1,275-revolutions per minute and is equivalent to a 130-horse power engine. The revolution of the turbine is communicated to the dynamo motors on the second floor by belting. The two dynamos are respectively 42 and 10-horse power.” (Hawaiian Gazette, March 27, 1888)
“Before closing this brief account of the event at the station we feel bound to offer one or two remarks on what can be only regarded as a strange anomaly, that at this late period in the history of science and amongst persons of high intelligence and practical experience and scientific attainments there should have been one who could dive into the dim recesses of superstitious gloom and having found what he wanted remarked that the wheel would have no luck unless it were christened.”
“There was such a one and he no Scotchman, and he had brought his tools with him in the shape of a bottle of ‘potheen,’ (whiskey) but the strangeness of the anomaly was nothing to the strangeness of the alacrity with which the assembled few agreed with that person and the strange appreciation they showed for the ‘potheen.’”
“Suffice it to say that the wheel was christened and its health drunk with heartily expressed wishes for its success. This took place on the ground floor – the distinguished company was above.” (Daily Bulletin, March 24, 1888)
A year later, the first of a handful of houses and businesses had electricity. By 1890, this luxury had been extended to 797 of Honolulu’s homes.
It’s interesting to note that the first electric lighting was installed in the White House in 1891 – after ʻIolani Palace (1886.) (Contrary to urban legend that it also pre-dated the British palace, Buckingham Palace had electricity prior to ʻIolani Palace. It was first installed in the Ball Room in 1883, and between 1883 and 1887 electricity was extended throughout Buckingham Palace.)
Oh, “Harry and Billy” in the title?
“Mr F (Faulkner) has two dynamos here the larger known as Harry and the smaller as Billy. Harry supplies power to 50 arc lights – Billy only runs 12 but Billy is getting old, having been working in America 8 years ago.” (Daily Bulletin, March 21, 1888)
A special thanks to John Wehrheim for images (past and present) of the Nuʻuanu Hydroelectric facility.