September/October 1998
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MU power plant celebrates 75 years of history, progress

by Jon Stemmle

The history of the power plant at the University of Missouri-Columbia is intertwined with the history of America. The first land-grant university west of the Mississippi River, MU early on drew on the imagination of the frontier and the technological advances of the east to become an institution on the cutting edge of both worlds.

EM worker in tunnel
EM works in all types of conditions, such as the tunnel above, to keep the power flowing to the MU campus.

Four years after Thomas Edison's invention of the electric light bulb, MU's Professor Benjamin Franklin Thomas used an Edison Dynamo to provide at the university the first demonstration of incandescent light west of the Mississippi River.

The light shone by Thomas that fateful night 115 years ago blazed the trail of innovation MU's power plant has followed ever since. From the 1885 establishment of the second department of electrical engineering in the United States to the use, in 1997, of tire-derived fuel to fire its boilers, the MU power plant has led the way in engineering techniques and energy conservation.

Illuminating history

Following Edison's 1879 invention of the incandescent light bulb, the world's first electric power plant was established in 1882 in New York City. In the spring of that year, Edison, himself a Midwesterner, donated a 20,000-watt dynamo to MU.

Still in working order in MU's Electrical Engineering department, the dynamo in 1888 allowed the university's Academic Hall to be "lighted by electric light, and warmed by steam with the Heine boilers and Bundy radiators."

An early mishap

Ironically, new electric power led 10 years later to the most famous incident in MU history — the fire of 1893.

On a Web page entitled "How the EE Department Burned Down MU," the department of electrical engineering describes how an accidental electrical short or overload likely led to the infamous fire.

What appeared to be a tragedy, however, turned out to have a bright side. The fire generated tremendous interest in MU. Money collected from insurance, from state funds, and from Boone County residents allowed for the construction of six new buildings, including Engineering East, which were built around the Columns forming Francis Quadrangle.

Years of growth

By 1893 the university had contracted with Edison's General Electric Company in Chicago and had a "new power house." With a power house in place, MU entered the nascent period of today's power plant.

The early 1900s witnessed the construction of the Dairy Power House in 1901, the 1902 complete electric wiring of five campus buildings — Dairy Building, Medical Building, Horticultural Building, Engineering Laboratory, and Read Hall, and the 1903 water plant. The university in 1904 named Arthur M. Green, Jr., a professor in the mechanical engineering department, as the director the new Light & Heat Station (power plant).

Under Green's guidance the university slowly brought electricity to the entire campus, corresponding with an increase in the size of the power plant.

Photo: Power Plant workers in the 1920s
MU power plant workers in the 1920s didn't have the luxury of computers or high-tech equipment to supply the university's electricity.
The modern era

As the 1920s began, MU's power plant entered a new era. The Board of Curators in 1921 approved a budget of $150,000 for a larger and up-to-date power plant to be built on Maple Street, now known as Stewart Road. This new power plant on Jan. 4, 1923 began producing steam and electricity, starting a 75-year period of service to the MU campus.

The power plant today serves over 35,000 students, faculty, and staff with steam, electricity and water, along with burning a variety of fuels including coal, tire-derived fuel, natural gas, and fuel oil.

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Facilities Focus is a newsletter published by Campus Facilities' Communications department to share news about MU facilities with the campus community. If you have questions or comments about this web site, please send them to Campus Facilities Communications, email:; mail address: 180 General Services Building, Columbia, MO 65211; telephone: 573-882-3327; fax: 573-882-5603.

Revised 7/2005

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