Alex Dow

Alex Dow
Alex Dow
Glasgow, Scotland, UK
Death date
Associated organizations
Brush Electric Light Company, Detroit Edison Company
AIEE Edison Medal


Alex Dow was born on 12 April 1862, in Glasgow, Scotland, the elder of two children and only son of William and Jean (Keppy) Dow. His father, the son of a blacksmith, was an improvident businessman, but Dow's hardworking mother made the most of the family's meager resources.

Alex received little education, leaving the Presbyterian parish school at the age of eleven. First working as an office boy in his father's short-lived real estate firm, and then as a clerk for the North British Railway in Glasgow. At the Railway, he developed an interest in electricity and served as a volunteer linesman's helper.

Early Career

In 1880, following his mother's death, he moved to Liverpool and took a job with the Cunard Lines as a stenographer and later as a ticket seller. A brief trip in 1882 to New York City as assistant purser aboard a Cunard ship convinced him that new opportunities awaited him in America, and later that year he migrated to Baltimore. There he worked for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, at first as an immigrant agent accompanying steerage passengers to Chicago, and then in the railroad's telegraph company. At the telegraph company, he was responsible for local line and instrument maintenance and some experimental work on telephones.

Dow joined the Brush Electric Light Company in Baltimore in 1886. In Baltimore he married Vivienne Kinnersley, shortly before transferring to the company's Chicago branch where he became district engineer. His work in designing and supervising the installation of an arc lighting system for Chicago's South Park in preparation for the World's Fair of 1893 earned him a wide reputation. Dow was called to Detroit in 1893 to design and supervise the construction of a city-owned electric plant, which Mayor Hazen S. Pingree hoped would end the disorder and corruption created by private competition for the municipal street lighting contract. While working on the project in 1895, Dow became a citizen of the United States.

Detroit Edison

In 1896, after completing the Detroit municipal power plant project, Dow became manager of the Edison Illuminating Company, one of several private electric companies then engaged in a bitter struggle for control of the Detroit market. Failing to effect a merger with his less solvent competitors, Dow further weakened them by reducing prices while maintaining quality service. When they fell into bankruptcy, he acquired their plants and brought them into a coordinated system. To ward off new competition, Dow declared his readiness to supply electricity, at a uniform price, to any part of the city, even areas where such service might be unprofitable. In 1903, to secure the capital needed for a new power plant, the firm, and its sole remaining competitor, Peninsula Electric Light Company, were reorganized into the Detroit Edison Company.

Central Station in Detroit

At the new company, Dow served first as vice-president and general manager. By 1904 the giant new plant was producing 6,000 kilowatts, but the growth of Detroit demanded the construction of additional turbines over the next two years and a massive new power station more than twice the size of the 1904 project in 1907. Additional turbines were constructed in 1910 and 1911. The company expanded through acquisitions as well, purchasing industrial and agricultural companies that controlled water resources and power generating dams as well as other electric power companies. By 1906, the company formed the Eastern Michigan Edison Company as a subsidiary to hold many of these new purchases, including the Argo, Barton, Geddes, and Superior generating dams on the Huron River.

In 1912, Dow became president of the company and built it into one of the largest in America. Under his leadership, generation and distribution of energy were consolidated within the Detroit Edison parent company and construction on new generation continued apace. Under Dow, the company continued buying other electric companies as well, including Port Huron Gas and Electric in 1919. The purchase of Michigan Electric Power Company in 1936 expanded the company’s service area to over 7,500 square miles, covering much of Southeastern Michigan.

Dow’s tenure at Detroit Edison was also a time of innovation. Despite his limited training, Dow sought to keep abreast of the latest advances in electrical technology. His early decision, for example, to generate electricity at sixty cycles, rather than the then conventional twenty-five used for direct-current transmission, indicated his faith in the long-range success of alternating current. He also lowered operating costs by installing (1907) in the company's new Delray generating plant a Type W Stirling boiler which increased the plant's firing efficiency. Other developments instituted under Dow included the automation of the system's substations, which converted generated current into the proper voltage for redistribution to consumers; the establishment of the "belt line," an integrated system of power transmission lines which reduced the necessity of constructing new power plants; and the installation of equipment permitting the production of high-temperature steam in order to increase the maximum limits of pressure in steam turbines. To keep the company abreast of technological advances, Dow established what was probably the first research department in the electric utility industry. New customer service initiatives to build demand were developed as well, including a free light bulb service, financial assistance for customers switching to electricity from gas, and the lending electrical motors.
By the time of his retirement in 1940 its invested capital had grown to more than $340,000,000.

Professional Recognition

Dow received two honorary degrees from the University of Michigan, Master of Engineering (1911) and Doctor of Engineering (1924). He also received an honorary Doctor of Science degree from the University of Detroit in 1935. Dow was active in professional and civic organizations, serving as director of the Edison Electric Institute, as a member of the Detroit Board of Water Commissioners, and, from 1932, as civilian chief of the War Department's Detroit Ordnance District. He won the AIEE Edison Medal in 1936 "For outstanding leadership in the development of the central station industry and its service to the public."

Henry Ford and Thomas Edison

Henry Ford worked under Dow as a Chief Engineer at Detroit Edison. It was Dow who introduced Ford to Thomas Edison himself at a conference in New York in 1896, with the words, “There’s a young fellow who has made a gas car.”

Dow died in Ann Arbor, Michigan on 22 March 1942.

See also: Papers of Alex Dow

Further Research

Archived papers of Alex Dow 1909-47

"Award of the Edison Medal to Dr. Alex Dow." Science. V.85 no. 2183, 40.

Zacharias, Patricia. “Henry Ford and Thomas Edison -- a Friendship of Giants.” The Detroit News. August 7, 1996.

International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 20. St. James Press, 1998.

Detroit Edison