Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/December 1895/Professor Forbes on Harnessing Niagara

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



THE past few months have seen the successful completion of a gigantic work, of epoch-making extent and significance—the Niagara Falls electrical power transmission plant. An article appeared in these pages in September, 1894, describing something of the difficulties which had been met and overcome by the engineers in charge of the water power and generator installation of the Cataract Construction Company, as the corporation which had the contracts for erecting the plant was named.

Prof. George Forbes, who held the position of consulting electrical engineer to that company, is to be heartily congratulated upon the success that has crowned his efforts. It becomes pertinent at present to insist, however, that Prof. Forbes should be content to limit his claims to glory to the considerable work that he has undoubtedly accomplished, for, unfortunately, he appears not overanxious to define that limit when discoursing to the public about his achievements.

There has been some bickering between Prof. Forbes and Prof. Rowland, of Johns Hopkins, as to which of the two was the originator of certain of the novel points in the Niagara Falls Power Company's generators. The atmosphere is very murky in consequence, but some facts would seem to have filtered through, and we shall take occasion to refer to them later. What seems to call for notice at this moment is a paper by Prof. Forbes, which appeared in the September Blackwood's, entitled Harnessing Niagara.

It is doubtful if any American magazine would have published that article, even had it contained fewer references to the shortcomings of the United States. It seems to us, however, that it would have been much better for it to have appeared in this country than in Great Britain, because of the freer criticism it would here have had, and because America's faults would then have been told where it might be hoped that, coming from so authoritative a source, certain valuable reforms would result.

A large portion of the article is devoted to a description of Forbes's own unusual endowments and capabilities, natural and acquired, which, it would appear, fitted him for the position of consulting electrical engineer to the Cataract Construction Company, not less than for the suppression of the American railway conductor.[1] A perusal of the article brings to one's mind the couplet by a famous English librettist:

"He was the bravest man in France;
He said so, and he ought to know."

Having noted the title of the paper, we are astonished at the space that is devoted to placing the demerits of this country in relief against the author's excellences, especially in so short an article. To quote certain instances, he says: "There are two great mistakes commonly made as to Americans: one is, that they are original inventors; the other is, that they are humorous. Neither of these propositions is true." The chief argument he advances against our possession of humor is that "their periodical literature is filled with so-called wit, but it smells strongly of the midnight oil." This is most sadly true, but, if one on this side of the water may judge, how much more so is it with British publications of alleged humorousness! The professsor admits, however, that in the matter of humor there are some most brilliant exceptions in America. May we not ask whether Great Britain, for instance, can produce exceptions in this line to vie with the United States?

In support of his theory that the inventive faculty is lacking in the New World, he states that Americans are competent merely to design, not invent, and, by implication, informs us that his own talents in the inventive line are the real article, and that no American was competent to undertake what he has successfully accomplished; and, later, dwells at length upon his improvements in dynamo construction in the matter of revolving fields. The importance of the device of rotating the fields instead of the armature in the situation he was dealing with was great, but, as that was the form of the first alternating dynamo ever constructed (in 1833), the novelty of the mere principle, which is what he refers to, is not greatly in evidence, nor, we may add, is the inventive faculty.

In leaving the non-inventive-humorous proposition he says: "Invention and humor require a gift of imagination, the same gift that shows itself in poetry and letters, in music, painting, and sculpture; and in no one of these directions has this gift of imagination been found to predominate among Americans." Letting the last sentence pass, we may observe that it would be as pertinent to deny to the ancient Greeks the possession of any one of the qualities last named because (what will probably be admitted) the inventive talent did not predominate among them.

"They like giving big names to things in America," says our scientist. "A pond is a lake, and a hill is a mountain; they never speak of the sea, it must be called the ocean; a meeting is a convention, a dictionary is a 'speller and a definer,' a town is a city, a chairman is a president, and so on." If I am not mistaken. Max O'Rell has told us much the same thing, and we ought therefore to take it to heart. O'Rell has wonderful insight and an unfailing impartiality, which Prof. Forbes lacks. Take, for instance, the cases the latter cites in support of his proposition. How false some of them are, and how purely local most of the rest! Then, to take one of his instances, it would seem as though Americans were not exceeding their rights in using the word "city" in the nationally defined technical sense of a place of over such and such a population. The method possesses indisputable advantages over the British plan, by which, we understand, no place without a cathedral can be called a city. The latter system of nomenclature has much to recommend it on the ground of mediæval simplicity, but results in the omission of several places of great size and importance from the list of English cities.

We are informed that in this country "the average man is not a good specimen. He is apt to be a most awful 'bounder,' has no taste, and does not know the meaning of the word 'repose.'" We must waive comment on the first accusation on the ground of insufficient information as to what a bounder is. As to the rest, we might suggest to Prof. Forbes that one may possess all the repose that ever marked the caste of Vere de Vere, when experimenting with bons mots on railway conductors, and yet be sadly wanting, both in that quality and in the good taste he refers to, in his literary efforts. One singular example of lack of dignity in the paper under discussion is an attack on Lord Kelvin, describing a line of action of his as hitherto unknown among professional men, in which he attempts to take the edge off that statement by mentioning that distinguished man as his most esteemed and oldest scientific friend.

A remarkable thing is that Prof. Forbes admits that there are exceptions to his somewhat sweeping condemnation of this country, for, after making the uncompromising generalization about the average American, he says that it is not necessary to meet the specimen except in hotels and trains, and thereafter follows a list of no less than fifteen names in one paragraph of fashionable friends of his who were, of course, delightful, the bearing of which on the title matter of the paper is obscure. At the beginning of his article also he makes disparaging reference to our experts, and, at the end, "wishes to bear tribute to the kindly friendship which I almost universally experienced at the hands of American engineers." We have one fine sentiment to record: "An Englishman in America should always try to retain his Englishness." This should apply to any one who is proud of his country; but, unfortunately, the reasons the professor urges for holding that aim in view constitute only another fling at Americans.

Turning now to such portions of the paper as do actually bear upon the Niagara work, we have, as above mentioned, the professor 's remarkable claim to originality in the matter of the revolving fields. Again, in describing the steps leading to his choice of apparatus, he says: "I soon realized the fact that not only could the latter (alternating) current be more easily obtained at high pressures, but that it could more easily, and without moving machinery, be transformed to any required pressure at any spot when it was wanted." This statement, it is to be regretted, is nothing short of dishonest. Forbes is here speaking of the year 1890, at which date the fact that he refers to as having worked out for himself was literally the A B C of electrical work, and part of the common knowledge of thousands of "line" laborers throughout the world.

With regard to the two points so far mentioned the distinguished engineer has not sought to belittle the work of others, but only to magnify his own; he has not, however, confined himself to this more moderate course, and we find him stating that "the highest scientific authority in America had taken up the same position as Lord Kelvin," referring to the latter's alleged strenuous opposition to the use of the alternating current. The eminent authority referred to would seem to be Prof. Rowland, of Baltimore, This gentleman, who ought to know what it was he advised, states positively that he did not strenuously oppose the use of the alternating current; that he did not oppose it at all; and that, moreover, his opinion was given in 1889, not 1890; that what he did advise at that early date, in view of the untried state of either direct or alternating current transmission, was merely caution in adopting plans, which advice, we may add, was most carefully followed, as will be seen from the fact that the main plans, not to speak of the details, were not decided upon until three years later, during which interval some most remarkable developments had taken place both in the design of machinery for use with alternating current and in the practical transmission of the latter over an immense distance in Europe.

Our writer says: "Until I went to America the manufacturers of electrical machinery never had a consulting engineer to reckon with, but dealt directly with the financiers, who knew nothing about cost or efficiency of machinery," and reference is later made to his being the first to get guarantees of performance from manufacturers of such machinery. The present writer speaks from personal experience in declaring this to be incorrect. The way in which a company, larger and even more representative than the chief one with which Prof. Forbes did business, filled an eleven-hundred-horse-power contract under guarantee, and later supplied an auxiliary generator to make the guarantee good, would perhaps have impressed that gentleman. The particular occurrence referred to is immediately within the writer's knowledge, and the extremely exacting specifications for the said machinery were written and insisted upon by consulting engineers and not by the financiers. It should, however, be unnecessary to say that, of course, the method of requiring guarantees and of employing engineers to write specifications was common in the electrical business, as well as in all others, long before the advent of Forbes.

There are other points in the professor's paper besides those already referred to which require contradiction, and still others, covered by the matter in controversy between himself and Prof. Rowland, which there is every reason to believe might be improved in the matter of accuracy, but which, since directly opposite statements are put forth by the two men, we must be content to let stand in default of other sources of information regarding them.

An opinion of Prof. Forbes that surprises us is set forth in the sentence, "I had always wished to put the dynamos at the bottom of the pit close to the turbines, and I still believe that this arrangement would have served us better." It is the opinion of the writer that it is an unusually good thing for the Niagara Falls Power Company that the above was not done. In his experience it is a practical impossibility to keep penstocks under great head from leaking, and the moisture thereby communicated to the atmosphere, as well as that due to the location of the dynamo room at the bottom of a narrow pit one hundred and fifty feet deep, with a torrent carrying a hundred million gallons per hour raging immediately beneath, could not well fail to impair the machines' insulation. Since the latter must carry a vast electrical pressure of alternating current, any impairment would be fatal to the maintenance of the plant. An instance occurs to mind in which a generator plant was located on a level with the wheel cases, and this not at the bottom of the pit by any means, but at the top of a draught tube some feet above the level of the surrounding ground, and in which, owing to the moisture unavoidably present, the generators had subsequently to be removed.

It is impossible, without quoting most of the article in question, to convey an adequate impression of the egotism that pervades it. A few phrases may, however, be of assistance to an understanding of this.

"The electrical work which I have carried out has been done at a cost that seems incredible to many."
"I did not care to go much into society."
"On such occasions I would write to my millionaires and tell them that if they did not do what I told them," etc.
"I had a lovely house in parklike grounds."
"I had a nigger servant."
"I had thus become well acquainted with the system which Nicola Tesla, a young Montenegrin, was experimenting on," etc.

We fancy that most people know the name and fame of "the young Montenegrin" a good deal better than they do those of Forbes.

In fact, the whole article is quite alliterative from the continuous repetitions of the first personal pronoun singular.

In an opening paragraph Prof. Forbes speaks of the production of the paper under discussion as the result of an attempt to curb a natural tendency to reticence, and, later, in describing the Falls of Niagara, he says, "The most impressive points of view are those that make you feel the smallest." It is not apparent whether the professor himself experienced the sensation, but, if he did, the depression must have been evanescent, for near the end he says that, while his company ascribes his "splendid results" mainly to engineering skill, "I am inclined to believe that they were fully as much the result of an exercise of tact, judgment, and forbearance, combined with firmness—qualities which I do not hesitate to say that both the officers of the company and myself recognized in each other." All of which, while possibly true, is scarcely the utterance of a man hampered by a temperament in which reticence and a feeling of insignificance are struggling with each other for supremacy.

Americans have faults and are not more sensitive to having them pointed out than other people, but the tendency among descendants of Anglo-Saxon stock to resent the imputation of the possession of visual motes by ill-tempered owners of larger ocular imperfections is deeply rooted. We have not for many a long day seen an article in a prominent English journal so well designed, by its gratuitous disparagements of America, to keep alive the fast-expiring dislike to the mother country that it is to the interest of all of us to see buried.

  1. He informs us that on a New York Central train he created disorder in the ranks of six (?) conductors ("the most insolent class of men in the country"), who filled the smoking room to the exclusion of himself. The subsequent verdict of one of the conductors is stated to have been that there were no flies (sic) on Prof. Forbes.