Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Masters of the Ocean Waves

The demonstration Wave Motor at an industrial pier in Huntington Beach promised to harness the ocean's power for California.  (Los Angeles Herald, Dec. 19, 1909)

"The company had a model of their invention built at 21st Street in Huntington Beach in 1909. They claimed to have 'passed the point where we must stand over a working model and argue with crowds of skeptics as to whether or not our motors will work in the ocean.' ”
    "Three Inventors Who Tried to Bottle the Ocean's Power", Wired, April 8, 2011. 

   Early 1900s Huntington Beach sometimes reads like an explosion of new-fangled ideas and inventions.  Ornamental lighting was installed along "oiled" streets, public dancing was debated at the town's board of trustees meetings, Curtiss and Wright Brothers airplanes were buzzing overhead, and "wave motors" held the promise of mastering the ocean's energy.

Pieces and parts in the Axelson Machine Company for the "mammoth double acting force pump" wave motor planned for installation at the 21st Street industrial pier in Huntington Beach. (Los Angeles Herald, May 17, 1908)

    Wave motors were the early 20th Century's renewable energy dream.  It's an invention that sounds a little like grunion running at Huntington Beach to the uninitiated--a little like someone is pulling your leg.  However, what the April 8, 2011, Wired Magazine characterized as "another Rube Goldberg machine" was real.

   "The problem of extracting heat, light and power from the ocean's immeasurable energy has been solved by Alva L. Reynolds of Los Angeles and Huntington Beach," reported the Los Angeles Herald in December 1909, the year Huntington Beach incorporated as a city.  

   "We have made a capitol demonstration at our plant at Huntington Beach," Reynolds told the Herald, "We are making electricity every day, and hundreds of persons are calling at our pier to see our motors work, and they go away convinced that this age-long problem has been solved."

The California Wave Motor Company inventors Alva L. Reynolds and George A. Reynolds.  Their workshop in Huntington Beach was at an industrial pier located off present-day Pacific Coast Highway and 21st Street. (Los Angeles Herald, March 17, 1907)
   Wired's Alexis Madrigal writes the wave motor designed by Alva and George Reynolds was to be built like a pier,  "there were vanes on the pylons that would spin when the waves came in, turning a crank that would pump seawater to a reservoir on shore, where it would run down through a standard hydroelectric generator."

The California Wave Motor Company pressure tank at the end of the Huntington Beach pier. (Los Angeles Herald, Dec. 19 1909)

   The Los Angeles Herald reported in 1909 there were "175 different schemes for utilizing wave power,  each representing as many different notions, not scientific knowledge, about wave action."  They enthusiastically championed Alva Reynolds as having solved wave motor science, "Mr. Reynolds has profited by the many failures of other inventors by studying the science of wave action."

   The California Wave Motor Company installed two units at a Huntington Beach industrial pier, boasting they had "withstood for several weeks the severest storm known on this coast for many years." Alva Reynolds--who had applied for a U.S. Patent on the wave motor in 1907--claimed they had a "complete wave power system of production, equalization and transmission."
View of the power house interior for the Huntington Beach demonstration for the wave motor.  (Los Angeles Herald, Dec. 19, 1909)

   The California Wave Motor Company definitely had the backing of the Los Angeles Herald and its managing editor, Frank E. WolfeWolfe perhaps not so coincidentally was a director of the company; the Herald ran a multi year campaign of special features on the California Wave Motor Company.  They were in competition with the Starr Wave Motor Company which was running a demonstration at Redondo Beach.

   At the time, Alva Reynolds said, "We first intend to furnish electricity to the City of Huntington Beach.  Every housewife of the town will throw away her smoky and dangerous oil stove and replace it with the clean, comfortable electric cooker.  She will have a big oven with plate glass windows, electrically lighted and heated.  There will be no smoke and no ashes in the house." 

   Reynolds was convinced "one mile of the coast of California will suffice to furnish the power for everybody in the state...These are the facts of the situation.  Electricity is the coming fuel and it's coming from the ocean waves." 

RIGHT: Huntington Beach officials were willing to take a chance on local boys Alva and George Reynolds.  (Los Angeles Herald, April 25, 1907)

   In June 1909, after operating their demonstration plant at Huntington Beach for several months, the Reynolds constructed a new 500-foot wave motor wharf "at the foot of 21st Street" in Huntington Beach.   Requiring approval from the U.S. war department, the Reynolds were told "if you don't obstruct navigation, you may draw all the electricity you need from the ocean waves."

LEFT: George Reynolds surrounded by electricity, from a Los Angeles Herald feature on the Wave Motor.  (Los Angeles Herald, March 17, 1907)

The Reynolds: Huntington Beach boys
   Huntington Beach Lifeguards (Images of America, Arcadia Publishing), notes George Reynolds was the first Surf City lifeguard from 1904 to 1907, the first pier area manager in 1904, town constable in 1905, and the first volunteer community bandleader.  By 1908, he is reported as being a real estate agent and an engineer.  George also was a prolific fisherman, evidenced by a photograph in Huntington Beach Lifeguards that shows him with a lengthy stringer of fish next to his beloved pier.

   Asked by the Los Angeles Herald in 1907 to describe an influx of Portuguese man o'war jellyfish at Huntington Beach, George Reynolds is quoted at length and poetically, "they shone and scintillated as they danced on the rippling waters like one glittering flotilla of fairy ships."  Clearly, the Herald loved the Reynolds boys.

RIGHT: Alva L. Reynolds in a Los Angeles Herald Sunday Supplement, "World Wide Review of Achievements of Men and Women." (Los Angeles Herald, Jan. 12, 1908)

   Alva Reynolds, then living in Los Angeles, appears to have been a master at gaining investors and support for the Ideal Wave Motor.   Alva gained notice in 1905 for the Man-Angel flying machine, an 18-pound air boat that utilized a large "gas bag" (think dirigible) under which the pilot sat, paddling over-sized oars.  It actually flew.  

Alva Reynolds' Man-Angel flying over Los Angeles in 1906.  Reynolds proposed to race his Man-Angel against an on-ground automobile from Los Angeles to Pomona in July 1906 for a $1,000 bet held by the Herald.  Postponed due to lack of quality gas for the air bag, there is no record as to whether the race ever took place.  (Los Angeles Herald, July 1, 1906)

    A master showman, Alva Reynolds challenged Wardin F. Trombly (first president of the Southern California Aerial Navigation club) and his airship, "Bullet," to an air race in August 1905, that the Herald promised would make the eagles "pull out their quill feathers in sheer disgust and retire to a locality where powers of flight is no longer a necessity."  

   The Herald went on to report, "Trombly will attempt no greater height than is necessary to assure himself whether or not Saturn has six or seven moons."  Reynolds' pilot for the Man-Angel "has promised Reynolds that he will keep sufficient distance from the sun to insure him against burning his wings."  This was but one of a number of challenge races that appear not to have happened, although there were many demonstration flights.  

   Reynolds planned to make his Man-Angel available to the public for $100, according to a Herald article, Honk! Look out for air cycles, in November 1910.

Not the wave of the future, after all
   Wired Magazine reports the California Wave Motor Company's "trail goes cold" around 1909.  But, that's not the case.  It hung in there a few more years.  Newspaper archives show gold mining stock being offered in trade for shares of the California Wave Motor Company and a meeting of shareholders being held in Los Angeles in 1910.

LEFT: California Wave Motor Company advertisement touting "capital stock $1 million." (Los Angeles Herald, April 12, 1908)

   In 1971, the Los Angeles Times remembered, "a reporter from the Huntington Beach News visited the plant (circa 1909) and said he saw 'the waves furnishing power, saw the perfect method by which that power was properly utilized, and saw the steady blaze of electric lights created by electricity produced by the power generated by the Ideal Wave Motor.' " 

  The Times reports "it churned away there for several years, lighting light bulbs on the wharf and holding great promise."  But, the Reynolds' Ideal Wave Motor proved to be more of a dream, incapable of generating enough energy to make it worth further investment.  

   Once on the cutting edge of green energy, the twinkling lights powered by the ocean waves at the long-gone 21st Street wharf appears to have faded around 1913.

Editor's note: Google "power from ocean waves" and you will see about 14 million results. It is a concept that continues to be tested today as a potential source of green energy.

Patent drawing for the Reynolds brothers' Ideal Wave Motor. (Image courtesy of Wired Magazine)

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1 comment:

  1. The Reynolds brilliantly solved a major puzzle for wave-energy enterprises: making the electric output steady and reliable, in the face of the periodicity and variability of natural wave action. Seems as if, with current technology--current sensors linked to servo-motor adjusters, efficient generators, and tweaking the paddle design (cup wheels?)-- this approach could be made profitable. Sorry I'm neither an engineer nor financier. It's certainly a simpler approach than most of them!


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