Steinmetz Warns of Pollution in “The Future of Electricity”

Charles Proteus Steinmetz warned of air pollution from the burning of coal and water pollution from sewage disposal into rivers, summarizing early recognition of the environmental impacts of population growth and urbanization.

Summary of Event

In a lecture titled “The Future of Electricity,” delivered at the New York Electrical Trade School in 1910, Charles Proteus Steinmetz presented a prophetic message on future impacts of the development of electricity. Steinmetz challenged students to reduce the cost of electricity by finding more efficient methods of distributing electrical demand evenly over twenty-four hours and 365 days. Electrical consumption would continue to grow, he noted, and it was up to electrical engineers to make electricity economical, whether it was created by steam power from coal or by waterpower. This need for greater efficiency of electrical use, he warned, would soon shift from a purpose of economy to one of necessity in the United States as the nation faced declining supplies of coal and imposed greater impacts on free-running streams for hydroelectric power. Air pollution
“Future of Electricity, The” (Steinmetz)[Future of Electricity, The]
Electrical power generation
[kw]Steinmetz Warns of Pollution in “The Future of Electricity” (1910)
[kw]Pollution in “The Future of Electricity,” Steinmetz Warns of (1910)
[kw]Future of Electricity,” Steinmetz Warns of Pollution in “The (1910)
[kw]Electricity,” Steinmetz Warns of Pollution in “The Future of (1910)[Electricity, Steinmetz Warns of Pollution in The Future of (1910)]
Air pollution
“Future of Electricity, The” (Steinmetz)[Future of Electricity, The]
Electrical power generation
[g]United States;1910: Steinmetz Warns of Pollution in “The Future of Electricity”[02560]
[c]Science and technology;1910: Steinmetz Warns of Pollution in “The Future of Electricity”[02560]
[c]Earth science;1910: Steinmetz Warns of Pollution in “The Future of Electricity”[02560]
[c]Environmental issues;1910: Steinmetz Warns of Pollution in “The Future of Electricity”[02560]
[c]Energy;1910: Steinmetz Warns of Pollution in “The Future of Electricity”[02560]
Steinmetz, Charles Proteus
Sedgwick, William Thompson
Hazen, Allen

Steinmetz cautioned that when coal reserves ran out, pressure to develop the nation’s water courses for electrical generation would increase. “There will be no more rapid creeks and rivers,” he said, “streams which furnish electric power will be slow-moving pools, connected with one another by power stations.” Reserves of hard, anthracite (low-sulfur) coal already were in short supply, and energy produced by the burning of soft, bituminous (high-sulfur) coal created serious air-pollution problems. “Probably even before the soft coal is used up,” Steinmetz predicted, “we will have awakened to the viciousness of poisoning nature and ourselves with smoke and coal gas.”

Smoke pollution from the burning of high-sulfur coal had become a nuisance for most industrial cities by the beginning of the twentieth century. A major problem for the smoke abatement campaign that ensued as part of Progressive Era reforms was the prevailing ethos that equated smoke with economic growth and prosperity. The Department of Public Utilities in Boston, for example, reported that prior to 1910, industries depicting factories on their letterheads “invariably represented the stack with a black plume of smoke trailing away from it to typify activity and prosperity. . . . if a stack was not belching out great volumes of dense smoke it signified that the plant was shut down.” Cities such as Milwaukee, Chicago, and Pittsburgh were commonly plagued by the “smoke evil,” which blocked the sun, blackened the lungs, covered buildings with soot, and dirtied laundry that had been hung out to dry.

Three principal groups were responsible for the smoke abatement campaigns: women’s groups, civic groups, and stationary engineers. The most ardent supporters of such campaigns were the women’s groups; they helped install smoke ordinances in many cities. Representing a wider range of interests were the civic groups, whose members were keenly aware of the economic interests of their communities and thus often tempered their activities in support of cleaner air. Those in the third group, the stationary engineers, were technical experts who served as smoke inspectors; they argued for technological improvements and sometimes helped draft local smoke ordinances.

World War I ended the progress made earlier by proponents of clean air because smoke was seen as a sign of industrial output in support of the war effort. In Milwaukee, the weather bureau reported a fourfold increase in the number of smoky days from 1916 to 1918. The smoke abatement crusades that reappeared in the 1920’s lacked the intensity of those of the Progressive Era. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, greater use of natural gas, electricity, and diesel fuel combined with technological advances to help reduce the smoke pall in many cities.

Charles Proteus Steinmetz.


In his lecture, Steinmetz warned of another abuse of resources. He was concerned about the steady depletion of nutrients from the nation’s prime farmland. Instead of returning their wastes to agricultural land to be recycled, cities were dumping into rivers the nitrogen and phosphorus that had been taken from the soil in the form of crops, thus not only polluting the streams but also wasting valuable fertilizer. Moreover, additional electricity would be consumed in the making of the fertilizer necessary to replenish those soils.

Rapid growth in population and industrialization, and the consequent urbanization created by this growth, had placed heavy demands on the nation’s streams for both water consumption and waste disposal. As a result, residents of many cities soon found themselves drinking the sewage of their upstream neighbors. In the late nineteenth century, the growing trend of exporting pollution to downstream communities was greatly accelerated by the introduction of municipal sewage Sewage systems systems. Prior to the development of the modern method of municipal wastewater collection, human waste products were either deposited in nearby cesspools (stone-lined holes) or privy vaults. As the privy vaults reached their holding capacity, either new holes were dug or the contents were emptied by private scavengers. The wastes were deposited on farmland as fertilizer, sold to companies to be processed into fertilizer, or dumped on unused land or into streams. This system of waste collection had several problems: It created health hazards, it was labor-intensive, and it typically became an aesthetic nuisance. As population density increased, there simply was not enough space for adequate cesspools and privy vaults. Both types of collection frequently overflowed and sometimes contaminated nearby wells. The final breakdown of this system occurred with the introduction of water-supply technology.

The development of running water-supply systems created a demand for the new water closet, which not only effectively removed human wastes from the home but also increased water consumption. Initially, water closets were connected to privy vaults and cesspools that were unable to handle the increased loads placed on them. Citizens began to demand that their communities construct sewer systems capable of removing these wastes. Sanitation;water supply
Public health concerns;water quality Efficiency dictated that such systems be large public works, which could be constructed only at great expense to the communities. The idea of a water-carriage system of waste removal had been around for centuries, but the first practical system was constructed in the 1840’s in England. In many large American cities, the debate over whether to build sewage systems occurred at the end of the nineteenth century. Advocates stressed the sanitary and health aspects, arguing that mortality rates from typhoid fever would decline and, therefore, would justify the high cost of construction. Other proponents argued that modern sewage systems would improve the community image, attracting industries and thus contributing to the local economy. Opponents countered that water-carriage systems would waste the valuable fertilizing potential of human excreta.

Largely unforeseen by advocates arguing from the perspective of health and sanitation was that typhoid death rates actually increased for cities drawing their drinking water downstream from towns that had constructed sewers that discharged raw sewage into rivers. Sanitary engineers and city authorities had traditionally assumed that contaminants were diluted in rivers to the extent that any hazards would be eliminated by the self-purification capacity of running water. Unfortunately, it took the dramatic increase in typhoid deaths for cities such as Trenton, Pittsburgh, and Atlanta during the period of sewer construction to indicate otherwise. In 1902, William Thompson Sedgwick, a professor of biology and sanitary science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, declared that “self-purification is only partial and absolutely unreliable.”

By 1908, leading public health officials were convinced that untreated sewage should not be discharged into rivers used for drinking water. Not only was there a risk of waterborne disease, but also sewage disposal in waterways limited their use for recreation and industry. Sanitary engineers, on the other hand, supported the disposal of sewage into rivers, arguing that drinking water drawn from these sources could be purified by the employment of new filtration technology, which had proven effective in disease control. Sanitary engineers such as Allen Hazen, for example, a chemist working for the Massachusetts Board of Health, said it was much cheaper to purify the water taken from rivers than to purify the sewage prior to disposal in those rivers. This argument convinced public officials; by 1920, the practice of discharging raw sewage into waterways and purification of water supplies had become well established.


The Progressive Era antipollution crusades for clean air and clean water had little lasting effect. These campaigns were on the fringe of, and to some degree ran counter to, the more prominent conservation movement normally associated with President Theodore Roosevelt and his chief forester, Gifford Pinchot. Whereas the smoke abatement advocates and proponents of sewage treatment were concerned with environmental quality and protection of air and water resources, the interests of the conservation movement were directed toward the development and use of resources. Steinmetz saw the continued development of waterpower as an inevitable outcome of a growing public demand for electricity, and he believed that this demand posed a serious threat to the quality of life for future generations. He argued that electrical engineers should be prepared to develop methods to minimize that impact.

Partial relief from smoke in the cities came primarily through technological advances and alternative sources of energy rather than through enforcement of air-quality standards. In general, dirty air was viewed as one of the costs of industrial prosperity. This perspective prevailed with respect to stream quality as well. Rivers became the common receptors of raw sewage, which received treatment prior to disposal only when deemed a nuisance. Population growth combined with increased urbanization and industrialization to place heavy loads of contamination into the nation’s waterways. Sanitary engineers and public officials opted for deriving the maximum utility from the capacity of large volumes of river or lake water to assimilate and dilute wastes. It was more cost-effective to purify drinking water drawn from polluted sources than to treat sewage prior to disposal.

This approach to water-quality policy sometimes resulted in severe pollution of rivers, which, in turn, affected larger systems such as the Great Lakes. For example, Lake Erie—receiving wastes from Detroit, Toledo, and Cleveland as well as fertilizer and insecticide runoff from farmland—is often cited as the classic symbol of environmental degradation. Between 1930 and 1965, Lake Erie’s average content of nitrogen and phosphorus increased threefold, causing overfertilization of the lake’s waters and a subsequent increase in production of phytoplankton. By the late 1950’s, dense mats of algae commonly formed on the surface, drifting ashore and rotting on the beaches. The increase in phytoplankton indirectly produced dangerously low concentrations of oxygen for some species of fish. Scientists believed that conditions created by excessive nutrient enrichment caused a change in the character of fish species in Lake Erie, reducing the value of the commercial fishery.

The precedent of waste dilution established in the early part of the twentieth century allowed the routine disposal of toxic compounds such as mercury and petroleum into waterways. By the 1960’s, Detroit’s industrial area was dumping hundreds of barrels of oil per day into the Detroit River, which then flowed into Lake Erie. The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland carried so much oil and other flammable wastes that it would sometimes catch fire. On June 22, 1969, two railroad bridges over the Cuyahoga were destroyed by river fires. Eventually, public pressure to do something about this issue became intense enough to provoke legislative action. Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River became national environmental icons, nagging at a renewed public consciousness that had been aroused in 1962 with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. In 1972, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau of Canada and President Richard Nixon signed a water-quality agreement that pledged to protect and restore the Great Lakes. This agreement led to the allocation of billions of dollars of federal moneys to municipalities for construction of sewage treatment plants and to farmers for agricultural improvements designed to curb runoff of nutrients and insecticides. The Clean Air Acts of 1965 and 1970 provided citizens with some relief from air pollution. As a result of these legal interventions and wider public awareness, the quality of air and water improved substantially throughout the United States in subsequent decades. However, debates concerning how clean the air and water should be have continued into the twenty-first century, both in the United States and in the international arena. Air pollution
“Future of Electricity, The” (Steinmetz)[Future of Electricity, The]
Electrical power generation

Further Reading

  • American Chemical Society. Chemistry in Context: Applying Chemistry to Society. 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005. Nontechnical college-level text provides the basic scientific background needed to understand air pollution and the issues associated with it. Provides a good summary of historical and political developments in the field of pollution control following World War II.
  • Goudie, Andrew. The Human Impact on the Natural Environment: Past, Present, and Future. 6th ed. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2006. Excellent general reference on environmental issues, accessible to lay readers. Chapter 7 discusses air pollution. Includes glossary, bibliography, and index.
  • Grinder, Dale R. “The Battle for Clean Air: The Smoke Problem in Post-Civil War America.” In Pollution and Reform in American Cities, 1870-1930, edited by Martin V. Melosi. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980. Brief, useful introduction to the topic of smoke abatement includes many quotations from diverse primary sources of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
  • Hammond, John Winthrop. Charles Proteus Steinmetz: A Biography. New York: Century, 1924. Examination of Steinmetz’s life and career published soon after his death. Chapter titled “Steinmetz the Prophet” quotes several key paragraphs from his lecture “The Future of Electricity.”
  • Hays, Samuel P. Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency. 1959. Reprint. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999. Classic work provides good background on the conservation movement from the perspective of public policy decision making. Explains the role of the scientist as expert and the importance of “efficiency” in the Progressive Era. Includes detailed discussion of the politics of waterpower development.
  • Leonard, Jonathan N. Loki: The Life of Charles Proteus Steinmetz. New York: Doubleday, 1932. Nontechnical biography provides valuable insight into Steinmetz’s political views and activities. Tinged with uncritical admiration.
  • McMahon, A. Michal. The Making of a Profession: A Century of Electrical Engineering in America. New York: Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, 1984. Detailed history of the electrical engineering profession, from the invention of the telegraph to modern times. Highlights the formative role played by Steinmetz as teacher, organizer, inventor, and theorist.
  • Miller, John A. Modern Jupiter: The Story of Charles Proteus Steinmetz. New York: American Society of Mechanical Engineers, 1958. Highly admiring biography emphasizes Steinmetz’s role in the development of the field of electrical engineering.
  • Pursell, Carroll W., Jr., ed. Technology in America: A History of Individuals and Ideas. 2d ed. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990. Collection of articles on key events in technological history and the people involved in those events. Includes coverage of the conservation movement and Progressive Era politics.
  • Steinmetz, Charles Proteus. The Future of Electricity. New York: New York Electrical Trade School, [1910]. Text of Steinmetz’s prophetic lecture. Limited publication, available in few libraries.

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