As swiftly as the Roaring Twenties brought good times, spending sprees, and business booms, the dawn of the 1930s ushered in desperate times, work shortages, and a tightening of purse strings. Initiated by the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression plagued the entire decade, making it the longest and most severe depression ever experienced in the Western world. The decade brought, poverty, unemployment, bankruptcy, foreclosures, bread lines, soup kitchens, shanties, homelessness, and hopelessness.

Nearly 11,000 of the 25,000 banks in the United States had failed by 1933. Consumer confidence sagged, and people saved what little money they had. As a result, industrial output fell sharply and unemployment rose drastically. By 1932, U.S. manufacturing output had fallen to 54% of its 1929 level, and unemployment had risen to between 25% and 30% of the workforce, or 12 to 15 million workers. Once the American economy slumped, and the flow of American investment credits to Europe dried up, prosperity also collapsed overseas.

The electrical industry was not immune to the effects of the Depression. According to EC&M archives, less than a third of the wiremen in the United States were employed in 1930. However, despite the steady decline in the economy, promising market conditions gave electrical professionals hope. An increasing population, a growing demand for more modern homes, office buildings, and factories, as well as changes in living conditions continued to encourage new construction.

Elected to the presidency in 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt immediately proposed his now-famous “New Deal” legislation, promising the nation hope for recovery through increased government regulation and public works projects. Years later, Roosevelt and the Democratic Congress developed several measures to combat the country's deepening financial problems, including the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1935, which put unemployed people to work on public projects during the Depression. This government program provided jobs, at slightly below prevailing rates, to as many unemployed workers as funds permitted. At its peak in early 1936, the administration employed 3.2 million, or about one-third of those unemployed. By its termination in 1943, it had employed almost 9 million workers and had provided part-time work for more than 4 million students or youth in an affiliated program (the National Youth Administration). After the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939 and World War II began, the nation's industrial focus turned to armament and munitions production to support the war effort, and the Depression began to recede.

The Challenge

In the following editorial, Electrical Contracting editors take a hard look at the state of the electrical market in 1930. Despite the tough economic times brought on by the Great Depression, they predict profits for electrical contractors in wiring, lighting, and motorization of the nation's homes, offices, and factories.

Nineteen-thirty has challenged the business man of the United States. Unlike past years of Depression, 1929 has not taken away our weapons. There is no scarcity of money. Interest rates are rapidly declining. The shelves of business are not flooded with merchandise; if anything, inventories are smaller than ever. There is only one problem. People are afraid. They saw October sweep away billions of paper profits and they were afraid — afraid it meant another debacle. They want to spend, but dare not. What a challenge for industry! What a challenge for the electrical contractor and electrical manufacturer who have the courage to look ahead — whose courage will breed buying confidence.

The crying need of manufacturers in 1930 will be more local outlets. Electrical Contracting has already started to create these outlets in its Specialist Campaign. Hundreds of electrical contractors will become specialists in some line in 1930. They will build business for far-sighted manufacturers. But Electrical Contracting knows that 1930 will reward fighters.

Electragists Celebrate 30th Anniversary

In a 1931 article, L. E. Mayer, president of the Association of Electragists International (AEI), which would later be renamed the National Electrical Contractors Association, recaps some of the association's accomplishments over the past 30 years. In July 1901, 58 electrical contractors from New York, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, and Minnesota met in Buffalo, N.Y., and formed the National Electrical Contractors Association of the United States. In 1917, the association created a committee to prepare a standard system of accounting for electrical contractors. This effort led to the development of the “Electragist Standard Accounting System,” which is used in more than 1200 firms. In 1922, after three years of study by a Cost Data Committee, AEI published the first edition of the “Electragist Manual of Estimating.” In 1925, the AEI adopted a resolution that the Trade Policy Committee and AEI executives must carry out the association's policy of distribution “from manufacturer, through wholesaler, through contractor and dealer, to consumer.” In 1928, another committee produced the first sections of the “Electragist Standards for Wiring Installations,” covering the types of wiring recommended under given conditions and specifications for materials and apparatus in various installations. Distributed by the American Institute of Architects, the standards went to 3300 architects.

After changing its name twice in 30 years to meet the broader scope of its service, the organization has members in 447 cities and towns located in 47 states, six Canadian provinces, and four foreign countries in 1931.

Concentric Wiring Update

In the summer of 1932, the magazine reports that five Edison companies, located in Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, and St. Louis planned to install 200 concentric wiring jobs — despite the fact that neither the NEC nor any of the city codes recognizes this wiring method. In a follow-up piece in 1933, Electrical Contracting reports the work has not progressed as quickly as the power companies had expected. In fact, no further installations will be made until the NEC sets up rules governing the installation of concentric wiring. According to the editors, the photo above raises questions about the amount of labor this type of wiring might save. On the other hand, they admit installation costs are ridiculously low. For instance, one contract for installing 90 outlets cost only $75, including materials and service.

AEI Changes Name Back to NECA

At the 32nd annual convention of Electragists, held in Kansas City, Mo., in October 1932, members of the Association of Electragists, International (AEI) voted to change the organization's name back to the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA). President L. E. Mayer advocated the name change because it's “simpler, more easily understood, and more conducive to greater association members.”

Re-inspection Efforts Create New Jobs

Re-inspection in 60 buildings in Portland, Ore., has resulted in 227 jobs valued at $17,347.50, Electrical Contracting reports in 1932. The city had recently passed an ordinance stating, “All buildings within the fire limits of the city of Portland shall be systematically re-inspected at least every two years.” J. F. Gray, deputy electrical inspector assigned to re-inspection work of Portland's inner fire district, maintains a large number of electrical contractors will profit from this re-inspection work.

Marry Red Seal to the New Standards

In charge of Red Seal promotion for the Society for Electrical Development, J. S. Bartlett commends the electrical industry for taking a tremendous step forward in the crusade to define adequate residential wiring. In a 1933 article, he admits the “Adequacy Wiring Standards for Residence Buildings” are useful, but characterizes them as only the ground work. The real challenge, he says, is to convince the public as well as those responsible for specifying residential wiring that these new industry recommendations are critical to efficient electrical service in the home.

Proposed Recovery Act for Contractors

In 1933, a special committee appointed by NECA President L. E. Mayer drafted the following Code of Fair Competition for the Electrical Contracting Industry with the objective of making the provisions of the National Industrial Recovery Act effective within the electrical industry. As reported in a 1933 article, the Code is complete, except for the paragraph covering minimum wages and maximum hours of work. Mayer has appointed another committee to gather labor data and confer with the Department of Labor in hopes of completing this section. As soon as the labor paragraph is finished, the Code will go to NECA's Executive Committee for ratification and then be presented to the federal government. The purpose of this act follows:

This Code is set up for the purpose of increasing employment, establishing fair and adequate wages, effecting necessary reduction of hours, improving standards of labor, and eliminating unfair trade practices, to the end of rehabilitating the electrical contracting industry and enabling it to do its part toward establishing that balance of industries, which is necessary to the restoration and maintenance of the highest practical degree of public welfare.

First Aluminum Channel Riser Installation

“The Field Building now being erected in the Loop District of Chicago not only embraces the city's first AC vertical network but the use of aluminum channel bus risers for secondary distribution,” writes Ralph H. Decker, of A. S. Schulman Electric Co., in a 1933 article. Construction details on the first installation of aluminum channel risers are as follows: the building occupies a ground area of 190 ft × 323 ft; there are three basement levels below the first floor; the main portion of the building extends to the 25th floor (above which there is a 20-story tower); and the rentable area is 1,000,000 sq ft. The connected power load exceeds 5500 hp, and the connected lighting load is in excess of 4500kVA, figured on the basis of 3W per ft for rentable area and lower values for public and building service areas. The maximum demands for power and lighting have been computed as approximately 3500kVA and 2300kVA.

On this project, Decker notes that the use of aluminum channels for the risers in the allotted restricted space presented many design and installation problems for the electrical contractor. The risers comprise approximately 6600 linear ft 4 in., No. 2.58 electrical conductor, 99.4% pure aluminum channels within a rectangular transite enclosure assembled on a steel angle framework extending the full height of the respective risers. Each of the six risers consists of a single channel for phases A, B, and C, and the neutral (with the exception that one riser in the lower half of the building's southwest corner between the third and 15th floors) comprises two channels for phases A, B, and C and one for the neutral, the back channel of the two channel assembly for phases A, B, and C continuing above the 15th floor as phase channels for the remainder of the rise.

Work for Inspectors

By 1933, the Depression had dramatically thinned the ranks of electrical inspectors and contractors across the nation. According to an article in the March 1933 issue, written by Editor S. B. Williams, even the chief inspector's office is vacant in some cities. Isn't there some work for inspectors to do besides inspect new wiring? The author offers a few options to keep profits up, such as re-inspecting, selling lamp and appliance stores on the idea of using only labeled cord, and working with contractors to minimize bootleg wiring. In light of the current economic situation, Williams maintains the electrical industry must try to keep inspection forces intact. Why? “Soon there will be new building again, and we do not want to have to retrain a new force of inspectors,” he writes. “We want seasoned men who have the welfare of the industry at heart. Let's do all we can to help keep them busy now.”

Sponsorship of Code Remains With NFPA

At a National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) meeting held in 1934, A. R. Small, chairman of its electrical committee, announced NFPA will not transfer sponsorship of the National Electrical Code to the American Standards Association. NFPA will continue to publish the Code. In a separate move, it also granted Underwriters' Laboratories the right to sponsor standards for electrical devices.

Wiring the World's Largest Distillery

Wiring the first major distillery to be built since the repeal of Prohibition presents engineers with several challenges in 1934. In designing the wiring system for Hiram Walker Co.'s new plant in Peoria, Ill., an Electrical Contracting article explains how engineers used a new material in this installation: explosionproof wiring. Because this was a new requirement compared to the days when distilleries flourished, the project proves to be cutting edge for the time. Engineers install 613 motors (totaling 5174 hp) and 1450 lighting circuits (totaling 826 kW), controlled from 127 panelboards, in the 18-building facility, which the builders claim to be the largest distillery in the world. Such an extensive use of electric power under varying hazardous conditions requires complete conformity with NEC Art. 32. This ensures proper safeguards for the protection of life and property against explosive hazards.

Measuring Loads with a Watt-Hour Meter

In a 1934 article, E. M. McLaughlin, an electrical inspector in Richmond, Calif., writes that a load can be measured accurately, quickly, and conveniently by timing a service watt-hour meter disc. Despite what engineers, inspectors, and motor men say, McLaughlin insists any practical troubleshooter can memorize the few calculations necessary to complete this type of measurement. The procedure is as follows:

The disc of a watt-hour meter rotates at a speed proportional to the load in watts, which is drawn through it. If we were familiar enough with a meter to know that a certain load would cause a certain disc speed, it should be an easy matter to calculate a load at a certain other speed. Information as to the amount of load which will cause the disc to make one revolution in one hour is the key to the situation, for it would be only necessary to count the revolutions for one hour to find the unknown load by comparison of speeds. For example, if it is known that a load of 1 watt will cause the disc to make one revolution in an hour and if, upon timing the disc, it is found to make 100 revolutions, the load then will be 100 watts. This watt-hour meter would then be said to have a watt-hour constant of 1 watt-hour. It is then necessary to know only the watt-hour constant of the meter in order to check any load.

Of course, it is not practical to time the disc for one hour. Instead, revolutions made in 1 min, multiplied by 60, will give accurate results. He concludes with an example: A General Electric watt-hour meter with a disc constant of .3 was found to rotate at 20 revolutions per minute. What was the load in watts? Solution: .3×20×60=360 watts.

Electrical Defects

Similar to today's Code Violations Illustrated department, a column by the editors of Electrical Contracting lists the typical Code violations inspectors found in the field in 1934.

  1. Protective Devices — over-fused, bridged, pennies, over-calibrated, tied-in.

  2. Conductors — cords used incorrectly, unapproved types, over-loaded circuit, open wiring prohibited, taps with unprotected smaller wires, improper splices, insulation lacking, unsuited to temperature.

  3. Devices — heating from contacts, insufficient capacity, near combustible materials, exposed live parts, improperly mounted, worn out.

  4. Boxes and fittings — omitted, inadequate size, need replacement, closed unused openings, covers omitted, not suited to condition, improperly supported.

  5. Grounding — omitted, deteriorated, needs repair, exposed to injury.

  6. Fixtures — improperly supported, re-wire, defective sockets.

  7. Wiring methods — unapproved methods, incomplete, additional supports needed.

Down with Bootleg Wiring

“With so many men out of work, there is more bootleg wiring being done than ever before. But this is no time to be soft-hearted and say nothing,” writes Editor S. B. Williams in the mid-'30s. He pleads with contractors to put a stop to unlicensed wiring. Williams points out that workers who wire without a license are not only breaking the law, but also taking work away from the legitimate trade. Furthermore, when unemployed electricians accept work at unheard-of low prices, the public has no guarantee of quality. “The license laws were enacted not to protect the contractors but to protect the public,” writes Williams. “If it is dangerous for unlicensed people to do wiring in good times, it is equally dangerous for them to do so in poor times. Any city that does not put its foot down to stamp out this wave of bootleg wiring will surely pay the cost of its folly sooner or later in an epidemic of electrical fires.”

Electrostatic Air Cleaning

According to a 1938 article, electrical precipitation of dust opens a new field for the electrical contractor in many industrial and commercial applications. The first large installation of electrostatic air cleaning applied to office building ventilation was completed at the Field Building in Chicago. Despite the thousands of tons of dirt per square mile deposited annually in the Loop area of Chicago, the article says “the air in this building is now hailed as the cleanest in the world.”

Modern Conveniences

Consulting Engineer Sullivan A. S. Patorno highlights some of the unique features of one of New York's apartment buildings in a 1938 article. Setting new standards for electrical utilization and tenant-controlled comfort, the 12-story building has no radiators and is New York City's first air-conditioned apartment building. In this modern building, designers have eliminated street noises, purified and conditioned the air during all seasons, and poured a flood of sunlight through glass brick walls without glare (while shutting out heat). This facility provides the convenience and comfort of electric cooking, auxiliary electrical heat in bathrooms, readily accessible general outlets, and facilities for television reception in all apartments.