Energizing the Community: 100 Years of Palo Alto Utilities

June 16 - October 15, 2000

Funding and support for this special exhibit were provided by City of Palo Alto Utilities.

In 1896, Peninsula Lighting Company (PLC) of Redwood City brought electricity to the newly incorporated town of Palo Alto, at a cost of 20 cents per kilowatt-hour. In response to PLC's high prices, two civic-minded Stanford professors who lived in Palo Alto led a campaign to create a city-run electric utility. Dr. Charles "Daddy" Marx, a professor of civil engineering, and Charles B. Wing, a professor of structural engineering, believed that Palo Alto could build and operate its own system for half the PLC rate.   As a result of their efforts, the community-owned electric utility in Palo Alto began its operation on January 16, 1900.  A town ordinance was passed setting the electric rate at 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, thereby validating the professors' assertions.
Charles Marx

Charles Wing
City of Palo Alto strung with lights
 Today, 100 successful years later, Palo Alto still owns and manages its own utilities, including power, water, and gas.
The story of the city-owned utilities' birth, growth and present-day operations was the focus of this exhibit at the Museum of American Heritage. Through dioramas, diagrams, interactive exhibits, photos and historic artifacts, the Museum presented a view of life before homes were wired, plumbed and centrally-heated and giving the visitor a better appreciation for what it takes to keep today's complex systems operating.

Exhibit Companion: Energizing the Community

The universal availability of stable electric power, clean, safe water, sewer systems and reliable gas service has changed the lifestyle of Bay Area residents dramatically over the last 100 years. Palo Alto is unique among Bay Area cities in owning and operating its own utility company. Our exhibit highlights the many ways that City of Palo Alto Utilities has made a difference, and gives a peek behind the scenes at the development of utility technologies over the years.

Living Room Gallery

Industrial power panel: A typical control panel used in early 20th century industrial settings. Edison style lamps were used to illuminate the meter faces. Diorama: University Avenue, the 1920s. But what lies underneath today? A complex network of electric conduit, water pipes, sewer lines, storm sewer lines, telephone lines, cable TV and gas lines. Green power: Hydroelectric power, wind power, solar power. These renewable resources generate energy. How many sites are suitable for green power? Can green power create other environmental problems? Trees vs. power lines: Trees and electricity don't mix well. When they meet, the sparks fly. Old bulbs: Many styles of light bulbs have been used over the years, ranging from the original Edison carbon filament bulb to todays modern halogens and flourescants. Traffic lights: An important city service, even if you sometimes don't think so.

Dining Room Gallery

back to top Doll house: Side A-With electricity. Side B-Before electricity. Which do you pick: Romantic gas and firelight, or all modern conveniences? Incandescent vs. fluorescent lamp power use: Which lamp will cost less to operate? Which will have the least environmental impact? Did you consider the impact of the manufacturing process? Fiber optics: Fiber optics are replacing wire for high speed communication. Each line can carry more information than copper wire and take less space, are less likely to fail, and are immune to the effects of solar wind changes. The Palo Alto Sign: A replica of the lighted arch that hung over University Avenue from 1911 to 1925. Underneath are samples of cable and pipe found under the street. Fire alarm ticker: What we had before 911. Remember those street corner fire alarm boxes? When you pulled the handle, a ticker in the fire house printed out a code with the position of the alarm box, sending the trucks on their way.
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This page last updated: October 26, 2000
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