Friday, March 26, 2010

Magnificent Obsessions: An Insular World

Not every post will be related to the current topic though I plan to have more than half the posts be on topic. Off topic posts aren't as focussed. They'll cover whatever subjects and parts of the longer web strike me as interesting.
Magnificent Obsessions are those parts of the web that took a long time to put together. Where a person or group puts untold effort and time into building their site. Part of you will wonder why. Another part of you will be in awe of the dedication and energy. Magnificent Obsessions are a fascinating part of the longer web. 
I recently stumbled across the existence of a hobby I'd never heard of before. A short while later I was reading about the way in which radiation can alter antiques to try and raise their value. Follow along and you may look at the utility poles in your neighbourhood with new appreciation.

I've heard about collecting stamps. I've heard about bird watching. But I hadn't heard of collecting electrical insulators. I hadn't suspected that people searched for old insulators and bought and sold them. Did you know there is a National Insulator Association? Or that this July in Boxborough Massachusetts there will be the 41st annual show and convention?

Neither did I. 

Turns out that a little investigation into this hobby can lead to all sorts of other discoveries. It makes one think about the invisible pieces of technology that are all around us. Those items that need to be in place to make everything work. We tend to think of electricity as a given. It's always there isn't it? We take the power grid for granted. We certainly don't think about the individual parts that make up the grid.

It wasn't always this way of course. There was a time when the nights where lit by candle or fire. When hot water was boiled on the stove and the only horsepower available needed to be fed.
By the way.... what must it have been like to live in a big city when there where no cars and only horses? How much manure did London or New York generate? Here are some numbers and some background (pdf).
Back to electricity. To electrify a city or a region there needs to be generating stations, transmission lines, and wiring into each building. Electricity isn't like water where it's kept in a tank or a resevoir. All the electrical outlets in your home are directly connected to the power grid and then directly to the generating stations. You aren't using electricity generated yesterday. If the power plant stops or a wire is cut the power stops instantly. That's why the electrical safety devices in our homes are called circuit breakers - they just break the connection between the wires in your house and the rest of the grid.

The power grid is nothing but long wire and myriad other wires that connect our outlets to the generators. (Okay... yes... I'll admit that's a major oversimplification). Wires carrying electricity need to be kept away from the ground and away from anything which can cause a short circuit. Insulators safely hold the wires so they don't short out. Insulators allow the largest transmission lines to be strung over metal towers.

Whether the insulators are made of glass or ceramic (click on 1st Floor to see some photos - ah yes... the good old days of frames on websites) there is an active group of collectors buying, selling, searching, researching, and displaying their collections online. There are histories, lists and even a magazine for collectors called Crown Jewels of the Wire.

The Insulator Index at is a good jumping off point to many other sites if you want to explore the hobby.

These links are not just to other collectors or reference sites. I ended up surfing to a explanation of how glass is coloured. A few clicks on glass bottle collecting sites later and I stumbled across the controversy about "irradiated" fruit jars. I knew people would go to great lengths in order to 'improve' the value of their antiques but I never suspected irradiation. I wonder if the experts on the Antiques Road Show will start carrying geiger counters.

So next time you walk down the street give the utility poles in your neighbourhood a glance. Those industrial insulators that keep us electrified may one day be valued collectibles of early 21st century industrial technology. Who knew?

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