First-Hand:A Look Back over the First 50 Years of IEEE

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Submitted by G. Holman King, P. E.


In a very real sense, the merger of the AIEE and the IRE parallels the extensive development and application of electronics to the electric power industry. Both involve a marriage of engineering disciplines and processes that has proven immensely productive and beneficial. I look back on these years with great pride from being involved in what has been accomplished. And in my awe, I can only echo the words of Samuel F. B. Morse’s first message: “What Hath God Wrought!”


My name is Gene Holman King. I was born in Abilene, TX in 1932 and prior to retirement in 1995 enjoyed a 35 year career in the electric utility industry as an engineer, manager and executive. I received my BSEE from Texas A &M in 1955 and have been a member of AIEE and IEEE since joining the AIEE student chapter as an undergraduate.

After post graduate engineering training at Allis Chalmers Manufacturing Co. in Wisconsin and military service in Massachusetts, my career played out in Texas where I was employed by West Texas Utilities Company (WTU), an operating utility, and later with Central & South West Corporation (CSW), WTU’s holding company parent.

During my high school years I worked summer jobs at WTU where my father was employed in the distribution department. By the end of my junior year, I decided that I had a bent for engineering and would like to pursue a career in the electric power field. My college of choice was Texas A & M largely because many of the engineers at WTU and other electric utilities in Texas had been educated there. It had a strong reputation in electrical power engineering.

State of the Art in 1955

When I received my electrical engineering degree, there were no digital computers - just slide rules, mechanical calculators and analog computers. The A&M Electrical Engineering Department maintained an analog “System Network Analyzer” which was used by electric utilities in the southwest for system modeling and planning. Some of the graduate students were beginning to do research on digital computers, but I was not exposed.

An interesting side note is that the EE department had acquired a surplus military radar which some of the graduate students used and operated. In the spring of 1953, they were watching it when the devastating tornado struck Waco, TX. They noted and photographed the peculiar images not knowing at the time what they represented. It is thought by some that this was one of the first instances when it was realized that radar could detect severe weather patterns.

Operations in the Sixties

When I joined WTU in 1960, the primary application of electronics to its power system was to support communications, principally two-way radio for service dispatch and power line carrier for power station dispatch and inter-utility connections. That situation would change rapidly over the next several decades because of changing demands in the electric power industry and the rapid development of electronic technology. In those days, WTU power plants were manually dispatched using incremental loading tables based on heat rate and efficiency differences.

Then, as now, the electric systems in Texas were not interconnected to the larger eastern US grid. The Texas system (now known as ERCOT) was divided into two loosely interconnected regions - the South Texas Interconnected System (STIS) and the North Texas Interconnected System (NTIS). One power plant maintained the system frequency. WTU was in a unique position because a portion of its system could be operated either in synchronism with the North Texas system or with the Southwest Power Pool through ties with its sister company - Public Service Company of Oklahoma (PSO). There were several substations along the boundary where a synchronization signal was available from each of the systems. It was always intriguing to me as a young substation engineer to occasionally visit one of these sites and take a few minutes to turn on the synchroscope and watch the needle move slowly back and forth as the frequency of the two massive systems varied ever so slightly. It was fascinating to consider the huge mechanical fly-wheel forces at play in each system as many gigantic generators worked to match the load and hold the frequency constant. To my knowledge there were few such places then or now where the electrical phase angle between two large systems can be observed.

WTU also had within its geographic territory several municipalities which operated diesel internal combustion generating plants. One of those took a delivery point from a nearby WTU line. While it could be interconnected in an emergency, its normal purpose was to supply an electric clock mounted on the control board of the municipal power plant where it could be compared to a clock plugged into the municipal system. This allowed the plant operators to maintain frequency stability and keep all of the local clocks running on time. This illustrates some of the elementary but ingenious control systems still being employed in the sixties.

Digital Computer Technology Arrives

In the early sixties, digital computer programs for power system modeling began to appear on the scene. In 1963 WTU sent me to a Numerical Methods and Digital Computer Programming course provided for power system engineers by General Electric Company in Schenectady, NY. That was my first contact with digital computers designed for engineering analysis.

WTU’s first load flow studies were conducted on an IBM 7090 computer owned by an aircraft manufacturer, Ling Temco Vought. It was the largest commercially available computer at the time (it boasted a whopping 50K core memory!) and was housed in a seemingly futuristic climate controlled computer center in the Great Southwest Industrial District at Arlington, TX. There were no windows in the building and it was hard to keep track of night and day. As I recall, it used four IBM 1401 computers for input and output and a dozen or more beautiful AMPEX tape drives to shuffle data in and out of the core memory. It was an impressive sight. WTU bought spare time on the LTV computer which meant that most of our problems were run in the wee hours. Needless to say, I spent many sleepless nights at this computer center, eliminating errors in input data by trial and error, and hoping to get a successful problem solution.

The load flow program we first used was both revolutionary and evolutionary. The original program had been compiled either in machine language or Fortran by engineers at EBASCO in New York. Not long after it was passed along to system planners at Northern States Power who had made major enhancements.

It used an iterative approach to solve the network conditions. If it converged on a solution, then the results were believable. If it diverged, there were no useful results! The early user documentation often left much to be desired. One had to have some elementary understanding of the program itself to prepare the input data and sort through the voluminous results. All of the program and input data was in the form of punched cards. A program with the compiler totaled quite a number of boxes. My worst fear was the possibility of an auto accident on the way to the computer center. In horror I could imagine my thousands of punch cards strewn along the highway.

Most programs were identified by their linage. The first we used was called the Northern States Load Flow. As I recall, that early version would accommodate a fairly sparse network of about 100 busses with a limited number of generators. It often required extensive hand calculations to reduce the transmission and power plant network to a size that could be accommodated by the program. Even with all its documentation challenges, frustrations and input error problems, the digital approach was far faster than using the analog network analyzer. It allowed a wider range of conditions to be simulated, and within a few months gained acceptance with our management as an effective and efficient tool for power system analysis and study.

Each year brought dramatic improvements in system models. WTU’s next major step was to run system short circuit or fault studies on an IBM 7094 at the A&M data processing center in College Station, TX. By then 1000 bus systems were available, and a power system could be analyzed in detail.

During that period it was customary within the electric industry to share programs among users with the understanding that each user would make some enhancements to the program or adapt it to a later program language or a more recent version computer and then share it with others. The cooperative practice bore wonderful fruit-the rapid development and spread of ever better programs covering wider applications. Load flow, stability, relay coordination and loss of load probability programs quickly become standard tools for system planning.

Consultants soon appeared on the scene offering to perform studies on ever larger and more complex power system configurations using their proprietary programs. As an interesting sports footnote, it was also at LTV that I inadvertently witnessed what was an early, if not the first, application of large main frame digital computers to professional football play calling. The Dallas Cowboys were using the LTV computer to analyze their opponent’s strategy! Historical data on given plays the opponent ran from a given field position was analyzed with the results produced in the form of probabilities and printed play diagrams. Although the output was voluminous, it must have been a very useful tool for the coaches. I was intrigued.

Power System Control

The Northeastern Blackout of 1965 had a far reaching impact on the electric utility power systems throughout the nation. Reliability replaced economy as the new watchword. The NTIS and STIS evolved into the Texas Interconnected System (TIS). Coordinated system studies, planning and revised operating practices came with the new organizational merger. An interesting shift in operating philosophy also emerged. Blackout experience taught that it was far better, in the face of a possible cascading system collapse, to shed non-essential loads quickly and maintain system stability, than to heroically hold onto load and risk a complete blackout. As a last resort, it was deemed better to break up the system into islands which could ride out the disruption rather than lose the whole system. Load restoration schemes following this philosophy were deployed.

Power system controls, protective relaying systems and communications systems were all upgraded in the proliferating arrangements of System Control and Data Acquisition Systems (SCADA). All represented rapid advances in the application of electronic technology to electric power systems. Fortunately, this development was paralleled by advances in electronic control systems and technology, and in time, control computers and SCADA systems merged into one.

Power system load control also gained the power and efficiency possible with electronic automated control. Power plants once dispatched manually or in periods of no less than tens of minutes were now controlled with precision and frequency with dispatch measured and updated in seconds. The loss matrix of the transmission system could also be taken into account by the upgraded and improved control systems.

Power Plant Automation

The first exposure to automated electronic power plant control applications that I recall came in the form of electronic boiler burner control systems in the sixties. That area of electric power was also experiencing rapid development in electronic control systems and technology.

When WTU’s Oklaunion Power Plant, its first coal fired unit, came on line in the mid-eighties, it was equipped with a total state of the art digital process control system. After an extremely rare intermittent circuit board problem caused more than a few gray hairs during a harrowing start-up, the plant went on to win industry recognition for its achievement in electronic power plant control. Pioneering progress is never easy!

By the time I retired, modern power plants were highly automated with comprehensive process control type systems, thanks to advances in computer and electronic technology. It is simply impossible to imagine a nuclear power plant without such sophisticated and redundant electronic controls.

Solid State Devices on Power Systems

My first encounter with solid state electronic devices applied to a power system occurred in the latter half of the 1950s. Allis Chalmers provided solid state over- current relays on switchgear that went into the power supply for the Distant Early Warning System (DEW) radar system being installed in Alaska and Canada.

Not too many years later some of the same type relays were used in circuit breakers which WTU installed on a water supply system in west Texas. Unfortunately, the relay designers did not realize just how hot it could get in the control cabinets on these outdoor distribution type circuit breakers. Random, mysterious operations created a period of havoc and consternation until the unexpected high temperature problem was identified and resolved. Again, progress is not necessarily a smooth path.

Electric power system reliability and continuity was also related to semiconductor devices in a rather obscure but critical link. Growing semiconductors requires a substantial supply of electric power that is extremely reliable and stable. An even momentary variation in the electric supply can cause the loss of valuable semiconductor crystals and product. Texas Instruments in Dallas was a pioneer in this manufacturing process, and its electric utility supplier was faced with many challenges to provide the service required. Again the solution involved both the power system and the latest technology in electronic controls.

Perhaps the ultimate giant in solid state power electronics came to WTU in the form of massive diodes or thyristers which we called “hockey pucks”. They were arranged in soaring stacks in the Direct Current (DC) inverter-rectifier facility installed near Vernon, TX to transmit hundreds of megawatts of power between the Southwest Power Pool and ERCOT grids without the systems being in synchronism.

Business Systems

While not a direct part of the electric power supply, during this same time frame the business oriented computer systems evolved and were integrated into utility operations, often over utility owned high speed communication and data links.

I distinctly remember the first regulatory filing our office created on a word processor in Abilene and then transmitted electronically to Austin, TX where it was filed with the state regulatory commission. Now we create huge document files electronically and transmit them across the country in the blink of an eye, giving little thought to the miraculous nature of the act.


The “1st Fifty Years of IEEE” has been witness not only to the merger of IRE and AIEE into the IEEE, but also to the widespread application of electronic based technology to electric power systems across our nation and the globe. The widespread, delicately balanced systems we call electric grids with their massive machines, electrical networks and myriad electronic and computer control systems are essential to life today. Clearly, these systems would not be possible without the assimilation of what had been two distinct disciplines- electric power and electronics.