HARNESSING FUNDY – A GRAND SCHEME FAILS (February 22/02)

On the evening of December 2, 1920, the second College Hall of Acadia University burned to the ground. Lost in the fire was the working model of an ingenious device made to generate electrical power from the Fundy tides at Cape Split.

The device was the Clarkson Current Motor No. 1, the brainchild of Acadia University engineering professor, Ralph P. Clarkson. Tested by consulting engineers in the Conestoga River in Pennsylvania, the current motor was declared to be one of the most efficient known to man. In later tests in the Gaspereau River the 15-foot current motor again proved its efficiency in generating electric current.

Unfortunately, the grand scheme to use the Clarkson current motor to generate electricity in the Bay of Fundy never came to fruition. From documents I’ve read about the plan, it eventually could have provided enough electrical power for the entire region. At the time, Clarkson’s current motor was proclaimed ideal for generating electricity from the Fundy tides. Later reviews by engineers as recently as 30 years ago also noted that the project had great potential and undoubtedly would have worked. In its February 16 edition in 1917, a provincial newspaper called it “an enormous project and one that cannot be given too much attention.”

So what happened? Why did the plan to harness the Fundy tides fail?

It certainly wasn’t because of the people behind the plan. Some of the brightest brains in this area were partnered with Clarkson on the project, among them Acadia president Dr. G. B. Cutten, Dr. W. L. Archibald of the Acadia business academy and Professor Alexander Sutherland of Acadia’s engineering department. The newspaper referred to above said that the Fundy project was the brainchild of Clarkson and Cutten. Clarkson himself had studied electrical and mechanical engineering at institutes in the United States; before coming to Acadia he had been an industrial engineer, had taught at university and most recently had worked in the U.S patent office where he had been chiefly concerned in the examination of engineering inventions.

When it was first announced, the proposal to generate electricity from the Fundy tides received tremendous local support. The Cape Split Development Company was formed early in 1916 with Cutten as president, Clarkson as vice president and managing director, t. L. Harvey, a former Wolfville mayor, as treasurer, and W. L. Archibald as secretary. The company then raised about $31,000 from the sale of shares, the support coming mainly from Kings County residents.

One of the first steps of the newly formed group was to engage the services of a New York firm of consulting engineers. This firm surveyed Cape Split during the summer of 1916 to determine the best location for the project. The survey revealed that the tide races through the rip at Cape Split at a velocity of over 11 m.p.h. and was the best location for the project.

One would have to be an engineer to fully understand how the Fundy tides would be used in combination with the Clarkson Current Motor to generate power. Basically, the plan was to pump seawater with the Clarkson Motor from the base of Cape Split to reservoirs on the cliffs above. From the reservoirs, water would then be gravity fed through chutes to turbines in a power house at the base of the cliffs.

Apparently, it was the overall cost of the project that killed it. Clarkson and Cutten had estimated that the amount of $2,500.00 would be required to harness the Fundy tides but the hoped for big time financiers, such as Henry Ford, never came through. The company quietly wound up its business in 1929, paying shareholders who had invested the original $31,000 a meagre $4.41 on $50. shares.

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