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TVA: The Great Experiment

Jeffrey Syken

What would come to be recognized as one of the most important social and technological experiments of the 20th Century began as a wartime exigency. In the Muscle Shoals area of the Tennessee River Valley, the river drops some two hundred-feet, creating impassable rapids. A dam thrown across the river at this point would harness a portion of the three million-horsepower of the Tennessee River, providing enough power for the electric furnaces needed to produce nitrates for the production of munitions as America entered the First World War. Alas, with the signing of the Armistice, the dam stood incomplete and the two nitrate plants lay dormant.

In 1921, Henry Ford had a vision. To do for the Tennessee Valley what he had done for Detroit, he would complete the dam at Muscle Shoals and industrialize the backward region by constructing additional hydroelectric dams, thus providing cheap, plentiful power to the many factories that would employ one million destitute inhabitants of the valley. Ford’s version of an “American Ruhr” would not be realized (for various reasons), but the idea of completing the dam and bringing the people of the valley into the 20th Century through the power of electricity held merit. So it was that Senator George Norris of Nebraska (a progressive Republican) submitted a bill to Congress (in 1924) that would ultimately result in the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).

The TVA Act of 1933 foresaw the creation of an organization that would have as its “Twin Foundations” Flood Control and Navigation (primary) with power generation a mere by-product. Ironically, it would be in power production during WWII that the TVA would have its finest hour, producing power for the many defense plants in the region and for the uranium separating facility at Oak Ridge, TN. The TVA would also be a vehicle for positive change in the valley, showing farmers how to mitigate the devastation of their previous catastrophic practices. TVA would be a test-bed for technological innovation in many fields tangential to its main purposes, lending its technical and administrative prowess far afield. Begun in the depths of the Great Depression and tested in both war and peace, the great experiment that was/is the Tennessee Valley Authority has withstood the test of time.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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