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Bearing Up Nobly

Spring/Summer 1988 | Volume 4 |  Issue 1

On the east bank of the Susquehanna River, about seventeen miles downstream from Columbia, Pennsylvania, stands the burly white block of Pennsylvania Power & Light’s Holtwood Hydroelectric Station. It’s an extremely handsome plant, very much at ease with the superb scenery around it, and a suitable monument to the confident era that built it. Holtwood went into operation in 1910 to serve a new century that was getting increasingly thirsty for electricity. It was a modern plant in every particular; so modern, in fact, that at first it ran into trouble.

Holtwood’s big 10,000-kilowatt generators and the turbines that spun them weighed 180 tons, the water that cascaded through to do the turning added 45 tons, and all this weight had to pivot on a thrust bearing. Holtwood’s roller bearings were the best available, but they weren’t up to the job. “It was a bad problem,” says Christian Porse, who is the supervisor of hydro operations at Holtwood and who in the last four years has made himself the company’s resident bearing expert. “They were having to tear them apart and completely rebuild them every three to six months.”

After a couple of years of this, a vicepresident of the Pennsylvania Water & Power Company—which had built Holtwood and was struggling to put it on a paying basis—made the very smart move of getting in touch with Albert Kingsbury. No correspondence remains to indicate how Holtwood found out about him, but as Andrew M. Mikula, the director of marketing at Kingsbury, Inc., says, “We couldn’t have sold our first bearing to a better customer.”

There was no Kingsbury, Inc., then, just a middle-aged engineer from Illinois who had been interested in coefficients of friction all his life and who had taken out a patent on a new kind of bearing. Born in 1863, Albert Kingsbury had begun to experiment with bearing metals while studying mechanical engineering at Cornell and had gone on to teach at New Hampshire College. Over the years he developed a thrust bearing that carried the weight it had to support on a film of oil instead of balls or rollers. The top half, a highly polished cast-iron ring called a runner, rested on the bottom half, which was the same diameter but was made up of a pie of six wedge-shaped shoes on pivots. The whole rested in a bath of oil, and as the runner turned, it forced up enough oil between the slightly rocking shoes to support the weight; all that metal actually rode on a thin film of oil. Kingsbury’s bearing could carry one hundred times the load of the roller bearings that were knocking themselves into rubbish at Holtwood. Or so he hoped; no hydro plant had ever tried one before.

Kingsbury had a job at the East Pittsburgh works of the Westinghouse Company when Holtwood found him. He signed what he called “a very stiff contract” and paid Westinghouse to build his thrust bearing. He brought it to Holtwood in the spring of 1912 and set it up in the generator designated Unit 5. It failed almost instantly.

When he had the bearing pulled apart, Kingsbury saw what he thought was the trouble: the runner had been “merely scraped, not polished.” He took the device to East Pittsburgh, fixed it, and came back for another try. After long days of installation, he got discouraged. His savings as well as his reputation were riding on his bearing, and things didn’t seem to be going well. Then, “on one of the last nights, as 1 emerged from the powerhouse at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, intending to go to bed at the boardinghouse about 400 ft up the hill, all my sentimentality was awakened by the sight of the great planet Jupiter, hanging like a huge torch above the dark valley. No sound could be heard except that of the rushing river. This experience gave me renewed inspiration.”

On June 27, 1912, they opened the headgates and let in the river, and Unit 5 started turning. It still is. “There’s the first Kingsbury,” says Alden Wagner, Jr., Holtwood’s superintendent. We are down on the roaring thrust deck below the generator room, and Wagner points to the glass inspection port. Inside, a four-foot metal circle spins at 100 rpm in a brown froth of oil as it has since its inventor looked up at Jupiter.

Holtwood bought more bearings from Kingsbury, and then the world did. Today they can be found everywhere from the Hoover Dam to our fleet of nuclear attack submarines. The company Albert Kingsbury founded is doing fine and is still in his family. Holtwood is prospering with 134 employees. And as for Unit 5, Kingsbury’s first bearing will be due for replacement in thirteen hundred years.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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