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Charles Merz - Lessons from Boston

"When an American firm get hold of you... 2 or dinners and lunches, a visit to Factory & a weekend with them at their summer club are the least they suggest --- However by being positively rude I have managed to reduce this somewhat -- & hope to get off with a visit to the factory and a lunch."

In 1901 the twenty-six-year-old Charles Hersterman Merz took time off from his first major project - the new power station at Neptune Bank near Newcastle - for a two-month tour of North America with his brother Norbert. In his first letter to his partner William McLellan, he said "I shall put any notes I make of technical visits in my epistles to you & shall not keep a copy, so in case there are any names I want to have after - you might keep." McLellan kept the letters and they are now in our Archives.

During his tour, Merz visited eleven cities in the USA and Canada. In Boston he commented that the Boston Electric Light Company's generating station was "quite the finest station I have seen which has been running for any time", and he described its boilers, furnaces, generators and motors, and especially its buildings. Equally impressive was the economical running of the Boston Company's stations.

Charles Hersterman Merz

Charles Hersterman Merz

Systems of charging which he saw in Boston also impressed him. He was "rather taken with" a tariff structure "by which we would drop price suddenly instead of gradually on max[imum] Demand principle--"  It was not fair, but it might lead people to "take care to burn over 2 hours." Moreover, in England, they should "adopt some means by which to educate people to use [electricity] more liberally like here."  In every US hotel room he had stayed in, "not only were the American lamps four times brighter, there were more than twice as many of them."

The diagram shown is of the New York Shipbuilding Company's works which Merz visited during his trip to the USA and Canada in March and April 1901. In a letter to his partner, William McLellan, he said that they were “perhaps the most interesting works I have seen while over here—quite modern …”  He commented that he was impressed by many special tools developed for specific tasks, and concluded that “I did not expect to find such fine shipbuilding works … There is no doubt however about the superiority of the works.”

However, in one important area, he was not converted by the American experience. He concluded "that 3-phase distribution is really right in spite of the universal adoption of direct current in the larger towns here.  Neptune Bank, the first 3-phase electricity supply system in Great Britain, was opened by Lord Kelvin on 18 June 1901.

Merz went on to a distinguished career in electrical engineering. The firm he founded in 1899, Merz & McLellan, became one of the major firms in the country. Merz himself designed many major innovative schemes, including "super power stations", North East coast integration and much of the National Grid. He was one of the finest engineers of his generation and deserves recognition for his many achievements.