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Two Electrifying Ideas That Never Lit Up the World

Our electric company has sent me an invitation, along with my monthly extortion, to come this summer and visit one of their hydroelectric dams, to see how clean, renewable energy is produced for the commonweal. This awakened some old memories that may be more comical to some than to others.

Back in the 1930s, the big story in Maine was the construction of Wyman Dam on the Kennebec River, forming a lake many miles long and creating a storage of many billions of cubic feet of water to turn generators. Mr. Wyman was president of the power company and had just been humiliated by the voters of Maine, who refused to let him send power out of state. He was now thinking things over and he invited all his kind friends to come to Moscow, Maine, and see what was going on at the dam.

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One of the attractions was a device built into his generating complex that would regulate the pulse of his power so electric clocks would all throb on the same frequency throughout Maine. In the 1930s, a great many Maine people were still winding clocks every Saturday night before going to bed, and this doohickey seemed like a good thing to have as soon as we got an electric clock. In my whimsical way, I wondered if the electric company could work woe with this tricky gadget and set it so Mr. Wyman, just for fun, could wake up the whole State of Maine at 2:30 in the morning. It would be a wonderful way to get even.

I did not pursue this at the time, and neither did Mr. Wyman. But the company's tub thumpers kept this marvelous little wonder before the public, and it happened I had a clipping about it from the Kennebec Journal when a group of us went in one day to see how Wyman Dam was making clean, renewable energy to cheer everybody up. We had the tour and were properly impressed, and before thanking our guide I showed him my clipping and said I'd like to know about this electric-clock regulator, as he hadn't mentioned it.

He didn't know anything about it. He excused himself to go and inquire, and came back to tell us nobody seemed to know anything about it. He took my address and said I'd be informed by mail. That's all I know about that, and 60 years later that's still all I know. Except that after a power "outage" I have to set my electric clocks, and every time I do, it occurs to me that one of those things at Wyman Dam might pay for itself.

Another hydroelectrical note has to do with Maine and Hamilton Falls up in Labrador. You didn't know about that? In Fredericton, New Brunswick, there's a magazine called Atlantic Advocate. It's a good publication, and in the 1960s it devoted much space to Joey Smallwood of Newfoundland and Labrador, an energetic, premier who went well overboard about the hydro-power possibilities at Hamilton Falls. The great upland plateau of Labrador drops off, and subarctic water runoff is prodigious. Flumes cut through the solid rock brought interminable water for turbines, and Joey Smallwood orchestrated the publicity.

There was enough power there to take care of the world. And long before the power station was ready to do this, Joey Smallwood was quoted in the Atlantic Advocate as saying that plans were completed to supply New York City with cheap electricity from Joey Smallwood's Labrador.

A submarine super-transmission cable, developed in Russia, would bring energy under the St. Lawrence River to Prince Edward Island; then a similar multi-trillion-watt line would come across New Brunswick, across Maine, across New Hampshire and Vermont, and then feed into New York State. Con-Edison, Joey said, had already committed $7 million to preliminary costs, and the governor of Maine had pledged his state's cooperation.

Joey appealed to me. I suddenly wanted to visit this tremendous development at Hamilton Falls, and while I pictured Joey as a hard man to get to, I decided to speak to him. I never met him otherwise, but on the telephone he was amiable as apple pie. I did mistrust that his enthusiasms carried him away from his facts. He wanted me to come and be his official guest. He said that the governor of Maine had pledged his cooperation, but in a matter of this kind he would refrain from remarks and let the governor speak for himself.

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WELL, I meant to ask if Joey had a device to regulate current for electric clocks. I didn't. But at the moment, our Maine governor was my friend, and I first telephoned a member of our Maine Public Utilities Commission, Earl Hillman, to ask how we stood on Hamilton Falls. Then I told him what Hamilton Falls is. He said that this will be important if true. He said as far as he knew, the governor was uninformed about Hamilton Falls. Why didn't I call John and ask him?

So I called John Reed, and after he told me how his new trotting horse was shaping up he said that he had never heard of Hamilton Falls, and who is Joey Smallforest? I learned later that the PUC commissioner had lost no time in informing himself about the big Labrador power project, and in turn had passed the whole story along to Governor John. I think that's as close as Maine ever got to Joey Smallwood.

The hydro-station at Hamilton Falls did get built, and after some Canadian politicking, with Joey Smallwood at the piano, Quebec Hydro, not Con-Edison, got the plum. The super submarine cable to Prince Edward Island was never laid, although Joey told me it was being manufactured aboard the factory ship as required.

It was too heavy to be made on land and then transported. Perhaps I'm unduly leery about visiting hydroelectric places.

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