Skip to main content

Honoring the Heroes of the Grid: The History and Evolution of Power Linemen

On April 18, we celebrate National Lineman's Day, a special day dedicated to recognizing and appreciating the contributions of the brave and dedicated professionals who work to keep our communities energized. These unsung heroes often work in challenging and hazardous conditions. Still, their unrelenting commitment and tireless efforts ensure we have access to the essential services we need to lead our daily lives. Power linemen have a rich history that dates back decades. They are responsible for installing and maintaining the electrical infrastructure that powers our homes, businesses, and communities. From the early pioneers who laid the groundwork for the industry to the modern-day linemen who utilize cutting-edge technology to keep our grids running smoothly, these professionals play a vital role in our everyday lives.

This National Lineman's Day, we reflect on the outstanding work of these professionals and celebrate the notable figures who have made significant contributions to the industry. We also highlight the evolution of the electrical infrastructure industry, which has seen numerous changes and advancements over the years. Ultimately, we aim to shed light on these unsung heroes' critical work and inspire greater recognition and appreciation for their vital contributions to our communities.

Origins of Power Linemen

The role of power linemen can be traced back to the late 1800s, a period that witnessed the rise of telegraphs, the introduction of electricity, and the expansion of the transcontinental power grid. on June 16, 1860, the US Congress passed the Pacific Telegraph Act to fund the Western Union and construct a cross-country telegraph line connecting the East to the West, enabling faster and safer communication. Before the construction of the telegraph line, mail delivery was done using a stagecoach, which took time, or a Pony Express, which was a riskier option.

During this time, linemen had little knowledge of electricity and were self-taught. Before safety became an essential focus in linework, climbing gear wasn't available yet, so they would wrap their leg around the pole to hoist themselves up. Despite lacking formal training and the hazards involved, these linemen were efficient. They competed to see how many poles they could set, which allowed them to build about 10 miles of line in one day.

This project required these men to set approximately 45,000 poles, which posed a challenge due to their lack of tools. Because of their creativity and desire to get the work done, they became great at adapting and improvising, even with a lack of tools. Another challenge these men faced was the herds of bison. Once the linemen had the poles set in the ground, bison would scratch their backs on the poles, knocking the line over. Unfortunately, there wasn't a solution to the challenge, and it continued throughout construction. They also had to face the Native Americans, who believed the telegraph line was a threat and would tear down the poles, thus requiring the linemen to go back and install new ones.

On the upside, the telegraph became a considerable advantage during the Civil War because it allowed constant communication. Both sides of the war greatly appreciated the linemen's work in keeping the lines working, whether that required repairing or building the lines to keep them open.

It's unclear why these men were willing to risk their lives for the telegraph line, but it's speculated that working during this time was a fun challenge, exciting, and created a sense of adventure. On October 24, 1861, the telegraph line was officially completed, allowing near-instant coast-to-coast communication. This project established linework as a career and laid the groundwork for an industry that would shape the modern world.

field of telegraph poles

Notable Power Linemen

Throughout history, many linemen have significantly impacted the industry through their achievements and contributions. Henry Miller was one of these linemen who played a crucial role in establishing the foundational principles and practices of line work, which became the basis for future generations of linemen. Known as the "father of the power lineman trade," he was the founding president of The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) in 1891. The IBEW was established to advocate for better wages, safer working conditions, and collective bargaining rights for electrical workers throughout North America, as employers were hiring unskilled workers and paying them low wages.

Henry Miller traveled nationwide to promote the importance of forming local unions. In his first year as the president of IBEW, they granted at least seven cities in Chicago, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Toledo, Pittsburgh, New York, and other cities into the brotherhood. Their first official meeting was held in St. Louis, Missouri, on November 21, 1891, with ten delegates representing 286 members. During this meeting, they designed a constitution, created laws, and even developed the notorious IBEW emblem, a fist holding a lightning bolt. Henry Miller revolutionized the industry by introducing safety measures such as rubber gloves and insulated tools, drastically reducing the risk of electrocution for linemen.

Another notable figure is Willie Wiredhand, the iconic mascot of the National Rural Electric Association (NRECA). He was created in 1950 by artist Andrew "Drew" McLay to symbolize the importance of rural electricity brought to rural regions by electric cooperatives during the 1930s and 1940s. He is still widely used to promote electric cooperatives today.

Photo from IBEW Local Union 68 of Henry Miller, the founding president of IBEW.
Photo Source: IBEW Local Union 68 of Henry Miller

Willie Wiredhand | Sam Houston Electric Cooperative
Photo Source: Sam Houston Electric Cooperative of Willie Wiredhand

The Evolution of the Industry

The trade of power linemen has undergone significant changes over the years, mainly due to technological advancements, safety standards, and industry practices. With the introduction of bucket trucks and hydraulic tools, as well as rigorous training programs and safety protocols, the industry has transformed considerably to protect the lives and livelihoods of linemen.

One of the most critical developments in the field of electricity was the evolution of climbing gear. In the early days of telegraphs, linemen used ladders and ropes or wrapped their legs around the pole to climb power poles. Later, blacksmiths would create individual climbers for linemen made of steel with a sharp point that could be attached to the leg using a leather strap, leather thongs, or wires. The idea of climbers was inspired by soldiers climbing trees during the Revolutionary War to watch out for enemies.

Over the years, manufacturers have made various enhancements to climbers, including making them stronger and lighter, using rounded foot stirrups for more comfort while climbing, and reducing the gaff position from sixteen degrees to three, which has been well-received.

Today, linemen are equipped with state-of-the-art equipment and undergo extensive training to ensure they can safely navigate the challenges of their trade. They continue to embrace innovation and technology, deploying drones and robotics for line inspections and integrating innovative grid technologies and renewable energy sources. Linemen are at the forefront of shaping the future of energy infrastructure and overcoming formidable obstacles.

Photo from Northwest Lineman College of a lineman wearing climbers during the Civil War telegraph.
Photo Source: Northwest Lineman College

Let's take a moment to honor the brave men and women who keep the lights on and the world moving forward. From their humble beginnings to their modern-day acts of heroism, power linemen embody the spirit of resilience, dedication, and service that defines our industry. As we reflect on their contributions, let us reaffirm our commitment to supporting and celebrating linemen everywhere, today and every day, for it is through their tireless efforts and unwavering commitment that we continue to power the world.

About DragonWear

All DragonWear® FR fabrics are inherently flame-resistant, tested in-house and at independent state-of-the-art laboratories, and pass relevant industry certifications. We use advanced proprietary fabric technology to support our design philosophy that comfort and protection are inclusive elements. Our products offer the ultimate breathable, moisture-wicking performance without sacrificing water-resistant durability and wind-repellant warmth. The permanent fire-resistant protection won't melt, drip, or wear off and cannot be washed away. Designing and delivering a quality garment each and every time is essential to the vitality of our products and our overarching mission to support and protect a customer base that operates in life-risking environments every day.