William Bancroft Potter was an electrical engineer greatly contributed to the electrification of the U.S. railways. The son of a Thomaston, Connecticut, farmer, William B. Potter got his introduction to machinery as a summer worker at the Seth Thomas clock factory.
It so attracted him that he passed up a chance to go to MIT in 1883, in order to apprentice to the Sawtell and Judd marine engineering firm. After four years of training there, he moved on to Thomson-Houston’s Lynn plant, where he decided to specialize in electric railway engineering. At the beginning of his career, the “horseless car” on street railway tracks was an astonishing oddity. Potter saw it become part of the American fabric. “His contributions to the electric traction art were basic, and hence enduring.”
From practical engineering problems as supervisor of installation of city railway systems – for example, putting in San Antonio’s Alamo Electric Railway in the remarkably short time of 40 days – he moved on to advanced development work.
At the suggestion of the Railway Department’s chief engineer, W.H. Knight, Potter took up the problem of applying the magnetic arc-blowout method to electric railway motor control. His key concept, “using a blanket instead of a hammer to put out a fire” (that is, using a large, powerful magnetic field to blow out an electric arc), became the key to a practical control method. Solution to the control problem, in turn, greatly expanded the usefulness of electric railways in America’s cities.
In 1895 he succeeded Knight as engineer of the Electric Railway Department of the General Electric Company. He molded a highly motivated engineering team. Subordinate engineers were given major responsibilities, and got full credit for individual accomplishments. A highlight achievement of the Potter team was electrification of New York’s Grand Central Terminal.
The life of an engineer in electrical manufacturing’s pioneer days had its hazards. When William B. Potter was on his first assignment, installing a Thomson-Houston dynamo at the Greensboro, North Carolina, electric plant in 1887, an irate utility customer demanded to see the “damn yankee” engineer. Brandishing a revolver, he threatened to “shoot the daylights” out of the machine. “Shoot as much as you like,” Potter is said to have replied. “But you will surely be killed by the lightning that will come out of the dynamo.”
Potter was a cheerful and pleasant man. But he had high standards, and insisted on enforcing them, particularly when it came to product reliability. This is perhaps best evidenced in a story told by another great GE engineer, Philip L. Alger: “It is said that once Potter asked one of his young engineers to develop a new controller for trolley cars.
The young man took the assignment seriously and built a model without showing it to anyone until it was done. Then he asked Potter to come and see it. Potter walked all around it, then gave it a hearty kick, when it flew into pieces, almost breaking the young engineer’s heart.” Such practices may have made life difficult for young engineers. But in the long run, insistence on excellence enabled Potter and his contemporaries to create GE’s outstanding tradition in transportation engineering.