July 21, 2010
The Autoextremist Interview: Reddy Kilowatt – The Man, The Myth and The Mystery.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Editor-in-Chief’s Note: Conceived and created by Ashton B. Collins Sr. for the Alabama Power Company, Reddy Kilowatt made his debut on March 11, 1926, as an ambassador for the use of electric power. Reddy was so popular that he was eventually licensed by over 300 electrical companies across the United States. He starred in local ads, a comic book and even a movie at one point. But then, things got weird, as we like to say.
Much to Reddy’s (and his creator’s) chagrin, some rural electric cooperatives and public utility districts created a competing character named Willie Wiredhand. Willie had electric plugs for his legs and feet, a lamp socket for his head, and strange hand coverings rendered to look like farming gloves. This did not go over well with Reddy or Mr. Collins, so Collins sued WIlle’s corporate handlers – the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association – for trademark infringement in 1957 and promptly lost. The court found that the two characters were distinctly different.
Bitter and disillusioned, Reddy soldiered on knowing there was a rip-off artist out there nipping at his heels in rural America, and even though his popularity continued, deep down Reddy could smell a change in the air, and it wasn’t just the Iowa cornfields, or the pot smoke hovering over the 60s. As the use of electrical power in this nation shifted from a growth strategy to an energy conservation platform, Reddy's visibility gradually waned. And it wasn’t too long before he was relegated to the scrap heap altogether, discarded like ahem, an old, burned-out lightbulb.
The rights to Reddy were bought by the Northern States Power Company back in 1998, and that company set about to manage Reddy's affairs, creating a subsidiary focused solely on Mr. Kilowatt. But he was rendered irrelevant again when that company created a character named Reddy Flame, who was tasked to promote natural gas. Despondent, Reddy went into seclusion, never to be heard from again. Until now. We tracked Reddy to an undisclosed location in rural Wisconsin and after harassing him relentlessly over several months, he agreed to meet me last weekend in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, to talk on the record, for the first time in 85 years.
I met Reddy in the parking lot of the famed Siebken’s bar in downtown Elkhart Lake. He was taller than you might think and his lightning bolts much redder than I expected – his dayglow yellow shoes were shockingly vibrant too - and his fixed grin was more than a little off-putting, to be honest. And the sound he made was eerie, kind of like a combination bug-zapper and microwave. Weird. But he seemed eager to get on with it, so without further ado the one and only Reddy Kilowatt, in all of his cantankerous, high-wattage feistiness. – PMD
PMD: Reddy, can I call you Reddy, by the way? You’ve been in seclusion for years, is that by choice?
RK: Yes, I had been ripped-off, humiliated and marginalized to the extent that it didn’t matter anymore, I just couldn’t take it and I just couldn’t go on. And Reddy is fine. It’s better than Mr. Watt, which some jack-ass called me back in ‘36. I mean, really, do I look like a “Mr. Watt” to you?
PMD: Well, frankly, no. But I did notice you’re remarkably well-preserved. And nice shoes, by the way.
RK: Thanks, I think, and of course I’m well-preserved. I have current running through me constantly, like 5,000 volts at any one time. I get a jolt every morning, if you know what I mean. (Reddy has a big stupid grin on his face that eerily never changes) Get it? Jolt? Volts? God, I crack myself up sometimes. (He also has this odd cackle when he amuses himself, and his lightbulb nose flashes like a strobe when he laughs. Weird.)
PMD: Uh, yeah. So, Reddy. Why talk now, and why me?
RK: Well, you’re a persistent S.O.B., I’ll give you that. And Andrea-Marie thought it would be a good idea to talk to someone after all these years. That it might make me less cranky.
PMD: I hesitate to ask, but who the hell is Andrea-Marie?
RK: Andrea-Marie Ampere. She’s a descendant of the famed Andre-Marie Ampere, the French math whiz and physicist. He was a very big deal, like the godfather of electrodynamics, among other things. I met Andrea-Marie in Paris back in 1958. After we lost that bullshit trial, I went to Paris for a couple of months in the hopes of getting my juice back, and needless to say, “Amp” or “Ampie” or “Miss Amp” as I like to call her definitely got my juices flowin’ again, if you know what I mean. We’ve been inseparable ever since.
PMD: That’s funny - there’s never been any mention of you having a life outside of your power company duties. You wouldn’t be bullshitting me now, would you?
RK: Yeah, well they never mentioned Willie Wiredhand was a fraud and a degenerate gambler either, so now you know.
PMD: Why do I feel like I’m getting the inside story of the people who played the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz?
RK: Hey, pal, you got me here, so I might as well get it all off my chest in one sitting. And I’m going to let it fly.
PMD: I actually don’t know how anything stays on your chest, uh, seeing as you’re basically a lightning bolt. And by the way, why didn’t “Amp” come with you this morning?
RK: She wanted it to be my show, one-on-one. She’s been pushing me for years to say what I needed to say, and besides, she’s not big on mornings so trust me, it’s much better she’s not here. Besides, we were up late last night partying and watching the latest Terminator movie – great electrical special effects, by the way – and after we put our charges together – repeatedly and enthusiastically, I might add – I let her sleep in.
PMD: Oh my, I think we’ve just crossed the threshold into TMI territory.
RK: What, you don’t think I can have a sex life? Or should I say WATT? (There’s that strobe-enhanced cackling again.)
PMD: Let’s move on, shall we, as the thought of you and Miss Amp getting it on is a bit disconcerting to say the least, although I’m sure it’s… electric? So Reddy, what do you make of all of this “electrification of the automobile” talk? Where do you think this is going, and is it realistic for the current administration to expect electrification to be the be-all and end-all?
RK: First of all, the words “reality” and “realistic” don’t apply to this administration, but thanks for using the word “current,” it always gives me a little charge (his damn strobe nose starts going off again as he cackles to himself). But if we’re speaking of reality here, as much as I’m an obvious booster of electric power, there is no way in hell that this mass electrification of the automobile is going to happen.
PMD: That’s a strong statement, needless to say, especially coming from you. Why do you say that?
RK: We tried it as a nation back at the beginning of the last century, and guess what? It didn’t work. This is a big damn country in case you hadn’t noticed. And we can’t expect these little electric shit boxes to move our goods, take us on vacations to Glacier National Park – I highly recommend that trip, by the way – or power us to a getaway weekend in the Smokies, for instance. It’s just notgonnahappen.com, as you like to say.
PMD: But Reddy, you don’t believe in energy conservation? I know the Green movement basically ended your career so it’s understandable you’d be bitter, but don’t you think we need to conserve our resources and reduce our carbon emissions into the atmosphere?
RK: Yes, of course I do, what do you take me for, a moron?
PMD: Well, no, of course not.
RK: Look, yes we need to watch what the hell we’re doing as a nation. But while some in this country are threatening to banish us back to the Stone Age while pushing Liposuction Fat-powered Lamps and Flintstone-mobiles, China and India are going to keep right on consuming their way to oblivion. Didn’t I just read where China has now exceeded America’s daily energy usage?
PMD: Yes, that just came out this week.
RK: Uh, well, just off the top of my cute little head socket that can’t be good, right?
PMD: Uh, no. It’s definitely a giant heaping, steaming bowl of Not Good, to be exact.
RK: Right. So if there’s no push to get those countries to adapt mass conservation, we’re all toast. And by the way, China’s headlong rush into electric power and electrification is all fine and dandy except for the fact that they have the highest polluting, dirtiest coal-fired plants in the world. How is that going to work? I mean, yeah, I’m an electric ambassador and all that entails – blah-blah-blah – but electrification for electrification’s sake is never a good idea, because something has to generate that electricity, and the way we’re going about it is crazy at this point.
PMD: What do you suggest?
RK: First of all, this administration has to get real. Shoving touchy-feely “green” electric cars down everyone’s throat - when we don’t have the infrastructure to support it – is pure insanity. Who’s going to pay for all of these electric car subsidies so that they’re actually affordable in the real world? Who’s going to spring for all of these on-street charging meters and all of the associated cost that goes with that? That’s right, you and me, the taxpayers. And last time I checked, we’re pretty much tapped-out at this point. And besides, other than a few HugVilles in California and a three-block area in Manhattan designated by Mayor Bloomberg as a “Shiny Happy Smiley Green Zone” we can’t get there from here.
Secondly, everyone has to get real about the scope of the electric car movement in this country and around the world. Yes, in a few mega cities we’ll see electric vehicles make inroads, but it’s never going to be this idyllic, Shiny Happy world that’s portrayed by this current administration. Electric vehicles for short hops in urban centers make sense, somewhat. But they’re never going to meet our inveterate need to roam, to experience and to explore. Instead, we’ll need to develop alternative fuels – I’m really digging the idea of cellulosic fuel from waste, by the way, and that new OPOC engine – and we’re going to have to learn how to use the energy from the sun more efficiently too. Do I like the fact that we’re dependent on petroleum? No, but to pretend that it’s not going to be around for another 40-50 years is just plain silly.
PMD: Reddy, what about the advancements in battery technology? Doesn’t that excite you?
RK: Excite me? Uh, no. Amp excites me; advanced battery development just pleases me. But again, electric vehicles and electrification are not the salvation for the human condition. I’ve been around for a long time, and I’m confident that there’s a whole bunch of technological developments and inventions coming that we can’t even imagine. As much as it pains me to say it, electricity is just one component of a wide variety of energy solutions going forward, but just one. And as much as I’m proud of my contributions to the cause, I’m a realist. Electricity - and electrification - has very defined limits, even though the people who have a ton invested in selling us on the Electrification Future want us to believe otherwise.
PMD: Interesting - and controversial - coming from who I consider to be the preeminent electrification ambassador of the last century.
RK: Well, thank you, but you know, the only thing I’ve gained after all this time is perspective. One minute you’re hotter than hot and the next minute you’re yesterday’s news, forgotten and ignored. I’m aware of my contributions and I was always aware of my role. When we were trying to build-up the concept of electric power to a nation weaning itself off of oil lamps I served a very important purpose, and I’m very proud of that. But this extreme – I would say blind – rush into electrification for electrification’s sake is going to bite us all in the ass, and hard. It will be more costly, I can guarantee you that. Much more. The Dirty Little Secret? Electricity costs are high. And this whole rebuilding the infrastructure thing will be just the tip of the iceberg of those costs too.
People need to get real – although politicians in California and Washington don’t count, they wouldn’t know real unless it served them a subpoena – and people need to understand that the promise of a Bright Shiny New Day just around the corner because of the electrification of the automobile is unmitigated bullshit. And that’s the High Wattage Truth.
RK: I knew you’d like that.
PMD: Well, Reddy, it has been a distinct honor and pleasure talking to you and we here at AE wish you and Miss Amp the very best in the future.
RK: Well, thank you and I have to admit it wasn’t painful at all. Oh, and one more thing? There’s no such thing as “free” or “cheap” electricity. It simply doesn’t exist. Use wisely, my friends.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
See another live episode of "Autoline After Hours" hosted by Autoline Detroit's John McElroy, with Peter De Lorenzo and friends this Thursday evening, at 7:00PM EDT at www.autolinedetroit.tv.
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