Cecil Whig - The slide rule genius of Conowingo

Cecil Whig   ·   Link to Article

CONOWINGO — When Maryland Public Television aired its locally-produced documentary “Conowingo Dam: Power on the Susquehanna,” it instantly became one of their most popular documentaries.

Hundreds of new members wrote checks in the rush to own the DVD of the episode and quite literally cases of the brief documentary were sold at the Conowingo Dam during an open house they held in September that year. The tours of the facility offered during the open house were sold out beyond capacity even as additional tour guides were brought in and extra tours added every 15 minutes for a solid two days.

The power of Conowingo, on public display through the documentary and the tours, attracted the interest and curiosity of thousands upon thousands of people locally and beyond.

On Jan. 31, 1927, alternating sections of Conowingo’s east cofferdam were completed, exposing the dry Susquehanna River bed for the first time and thus enabling thousands of workers to start construction of the powerhouse on the Harford County side of the river. Fast forward 12 months to the day, and the main unit generator was turned over for the very first time. Then as now, the timing seemed utterly fantastical and mind-boggling.

True, there were more than 3,800 workers on the project that took a total of only 21 months to build, and the concept of the dam had been a long-held dream since at least 1916 with various studies and plans rendered during that period. But still, 21 months from a dam on paper to damming a river and generating power is truly an “other-worldly” timeframe.

But to one man with four names it was all in a life’s work.

William Charles Lawson Eglin, the genius chief engineer for Philadelphia Electric Company, was the man for the job, designing the Conowingo Dam we know today. Known mostly as Charles Eglin rather than his full name, Eglin came up with the concept that 11 turbine tubes should be built, despite just seven of that number being put into use immediately. Better to have them in advance and not use them, Eglin figured, than need them and have to punch a hole through a concrete dam to add them later. He was right, of course, as four much higher capacity turbine units would be added to those moth-balled chutes some 50 years after the dam was completed.

It was 91 years ago today that the in-house station Unit #2 at Conowingo Dam was first turned over on Feb. 8, 1928. Four days later, it was put into commercial operation on Feb. 12, 1928. Although those dates of operation are incredible, there is another incredible but tragic fact surrounding them.

Despite the Conowingo Dam being the greatest of Eglin’s engineering projects, the aggressive construction schedule and stress of being the sole man in charge on the $52 million project appears to have gotten the better of him. The day before Unit #2 was turned over for the very first time, the great engineer who visualized the dam, passed away on Feb. 7, 1928, at only 57 years old.

Born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1870, he was the son of William Eglin (1832-1913) and Mary Porter Meikle Eglin (1842-1906), neither of whom lived to witness their talented son’s great triumph. Two siblings, Jane and Archibald, did, however, see the project and it is said that they drove across it in their deceased brother’s honor.

William’s father was a leather merchant who had sufficient success to send his son to Anderson University, the best school in Scotland for technical education. While there, the young Eglin worked with inventor engineer Rankin Kennedy on electrical distribution systems, transformers and alternating current generators.

Charles Eglin came with his parents to America and, in 1888 while in Philadelphia, worked with William D. Marks, engineering professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Marks eventually worked with licensees of Thomas Edison’s direct-current system as the supervising engineer, and Eglin would follow him in the work in 1889. All of this led to Eglin’s work on Conowingo Dam with his most familiar architectural partner, John Torrey Windrim (1866-1934).

Eglin did have the opportunity to see the structure of the Conowingo Dam to near completion, with architectural details yet to be added, but not to the fruition of seeing his masterwork generate power. Despite this, there is a bronze plaque to Eglin and his amazing work — all done using a slide rule as his computer — in the former museum of the Conowingo Dam.

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