Electrical Power and Corporate Identity: PECO’s Delaware Generating Station

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At the dawn of the 20th century, the Philadelphia Electric Company (PECO) embarked on an ambitious—and treacherous—plan to expand a market for their most intangible and misunderstood product, electricity. Although many Americans avidly followed the innovations in the electricity production and transmission fields in the late 19th century–the so-called power wars pitting Thomas Edison’s General Electric Company against George Westinghouse’s Westinghouse Electrical Manufacturing Company–most Americans had only the faintest idea as to what electricity was. As Thomas Hughes has pointed out, Americans conceptualized the science of electrical power transmission with the metaphors of water power: thus “flow” and “current.” But urban America had even less understanding as to the applications and advantages of electricity. Some municipalities had began replacing gas lamps with incandescent bulbs and thanks to Frank Sprague’s invention streetcars had jettisoned the horse and were employing electricity. But in the early part of the 20th century, only the very wealthy and progressive entertained ideas of wiring a house for electric light. And industry relied mainly on their on-site powerplants to provide steam generation to run direct shaft and belt-drive pulleys.

 

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As the uses of electricity became increasingly defined in the early 20th century, PECO sought to simultaneously expand its electricity output in the region while marketing a variety of new uses for electricity. The Company had consolidated its control of the electrical industry, purchasing smaller local generators which supplied electricity for small markets such as street lighting. According to Nicholas Wainwright’s History of the Philadelphia Electric Company, 1881-1961, after bringing National Electric into their fold, the company purchased the Kensington Electric Company in 1901 and the Delaware County Electric Company in 1918. The Delaware County Electric Company had just completed construction of an inspiring generating station at Chester. With its towering redbrick Georgian facade with its white columns bathed in incandescent light, the structure reflected the new design philosophy that utilitarian structures join the pantheon of great civic buildings: government centers, railroad terminals, and courthouses.

 

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