Even though his professional pole-climbing days ended years ago, IBEW Special Projects Director Rocky Clark still finds his eyes wandering to the summit of roadside utility poles.
Its the insulators that occupy his attention. Clarks interest in insulators started while he was a lineman in the 1970s, when he came face to face with enough insulators to recognize that differences in color, design and material made for interesting collecting. While working in construction utility maintenance for a contractor and for Montana Power Company, he started saving glass insulators as they were replaced by porcelain. His collection numbers into the hundreds, and his interest has never faded.
"If I see an old telephone line, I often look up and kind of squint," Clark said.
Hes not alone. If the electrical trade ever sanctioned an official hobby, it might just be insulator collecting. For years, the pastime has had its own below-the-radar subculture populated by enthusiasts and hobbyists, with clubs, reference books, terminology and identification systems. Governed by a national association, hobbyists are linked by conventions, Internet chats, numerous books and an official magazine named Crown Jewels of the Wire.
Insulators prevent electricity, communications and railroad wires from being grounded. These pole-top caps may be found gracing crossbars on poles everywhere. Insulators are unique to the date used, the manufacturer, material, use, shape and embossing. One collector years ago classified all the insulators he could find and assigned them a "consolidated design" or "CD" and a number. The current price guide for North American glass insulators cites more than 9,000 different insulators.
IBEW Special Projects Department Director Rocky Clarks collection of old glass insulators numbers in the hundreds.
No other piece of electrical transmission hardware is as interesting to collectors, or as celebrated. Prices for some rare pieces reach into the thousands of dollars. Clark counts among his favorites the turquoise-hued insulators produced by glass company Hemingray and once found on transmission lines in Montana. "Some of these things date from when electricity was first invented," Clark said.
Interest in the history of the industry prompted Clark to donate several insulators from his collection to the International Office archives.
Local 9 lineman Lenny Veneziano, son of H & H Electric owner Larry Veneziano, installs a commemorative glass insulator on a pole in suburban Chicago.
Chicago Local 9 member Larry Veneziano, owner of H&H Electric, said he started collecting insulators as a utility lineman 40 years ago. After an antique dealer came along asking to "rescue" the insulators Veneziano and his crew had been throwing out, "we started saving them for him," he said. After seeing the dealers collection, Veneziano said he was hooked. "Its a neat hobby," he said. "Its like a treasure hunt."
Today, among other places, insulators can be found on the Internet auction site e-Bay, which has served to attract a new generation of collectors. Veneziano said although they were once ubiquitous, many insulators are disappearing, getting replaced by new ones, or in the case of new distribution lines, getting buried underground.
Most of the insulators up for auction on e-Bay are common, running for prices around $10 to $15. Many are valued in the hundreds of dollars, and some rare pieces can fetch big-league prices. Last June, a telegraph insulator produced by Emmingers around 1910 sold for $38,000. The green model with embossing on the rim and side was used in Pennsylvania when the communication was in Morse code. Veneziano said only four of the model-CD 263-are known to exist today. In what he characterizes as his most regrettable move as an insulator collector, he said he traded two such models 20 years ago, for about $500.
As a "tribute to the historic evolution of electricity," as each model reads, Local 9 and H&H Electric commissioned the manufacture of 650 commemorative red, blue and green insulators. Standing approximately six inches tall, each low-voltage, pin type, private issue glass insulator bears the H&H logo and mentions Local 9. But their commemorative nature does not mean they function solely as paperweights, Veneziano said. Four of the special insulators are in use in suburban Chicago on a street light circuit.
To learn more about insulators and the hobby of insulator collecting, log on to the National Insulator Association at www.nia.org.
October 2003 IBEW Journal