Scanning the Past: A History of Electrical Engineering from the Past
Submitted by Bob Morrison, Editor

William S. Lee and Parallel Hydro Power

Eighty-five years ago this month, William S. Lee presented a paper to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE) on the “parallel operation of hydroelectric plants.” At the time he was the chief engineer of the Southern Power Company and already becoming known as a designer of large hydroelectric power plants and high-voltage transmission lines.

In his March 1910 paper, Lee discussed the economic and technical benefits of operating a system of interconnected generating plants which might be located on different rivers in a region such as the Piedmont of the Carolinas. He stated that the principal objective was to operate the dispersed plants in such a manner that the “greatest amount of power can be delivered from all the streams.” He stressed the advantages of load diversity, noting that a larger number of customers with different power needs supplied from a single system gave a “much better load factor than would be possible with singly operated plants.” He pointed out that a power company supplying industries and towns scattered over a large area needed to be a high-voltage distribution company rather than a high-voltage transmission company. Lee viewed the use of water power as contributing to conservation since it would reduce coal consumption. He commented that “true conservation” consisted of “utilizing these resources at present that cannot be kept for use at a future time.”

Lee was born in Lancaster, South Carolina, in 1872 and graduated in civil engineering from The Citadel in 1894. After a brief stint as a school teacher he became the resident engineer of the Anderson Water, Light, and Power Company in South Carolina and directed construction of an early hydroelectric plant at Portman Shoals on the Seneca River. During the Spanish-American War, he designed coastal fortifications for the Army near Charleston. In 1898 he took a position as resident engineer of the Columbus Power Company in Georgia and supervised construction of the first large power dam in the South on the Chattahoochee River at Columbus. Subsequently, he joined the Catawba Power Company as chief engineer and designed a hydroelectric plant completed at India Hook Shoals on the Catawba River in 1904. This plant became the nucleus of the system of the Southern Power Company organized in 1905 with capital supplied by James B. Duke and with Lee as chief engineer. During the next five years, Lee oversaw the construction of three additional hydroelectric plants and 900 miles of high-voltage lines which supplied electric power to 125 textile mills and 40 towns. In 1909, the Southern Power Company became the second company in the United States to install a 100 kV transmission line and the first to employ a double-circuit 100 kV line.

Lee believed that a centralized supply of cheap power was a key requisite for industrialization of the South and he later wrote that “industrial expansion follows the transmission lines of a central system.” He helped negotiate interconnections between the Southern Power Company system and utilities in other southeastern states. In 1914 it was reported that “there has quietly grown up in the South what is today by far the most extensive interconnected transmission system in the world” with seven systems covering portions of four states being connected.

The Southern Power Company became Duke Power Company in 1924 with Lee still chief engineer and a vice president. In a 1929 AIEE paper, Lee reported that about 72% of Duke’s power supply was hydroelectric with the remaining 28% coming from steam plants. By then the company had about 4,000 miles of high-voltage lines serving 160 industrial communities. During the 1920’s, Lee was involved as a consulting engineer in the construction of several large hydroelectric plants in Quebec, Canada.

Lee was an AIEE Fellow and served on a number of AIEE committees before being elected president of the AIEE in 1931. He became president of the American Engineering Council in 1932. He died in March 1934 at age 62.

James E. Brittain
School of History , Technology, and Society
Georgia Institute of Technology


Copyright 1995 IEEE. Reprinted with permission from the IEEE publication, “Scanning the Past” which covers a reprint of an article appearing in the Proceedings of the IEEE Vol. 84, No. 3, March 1995.