Reddy Kilowatt, that energetic icon of benevolent electricity, lingers in the psyche of Americans across generations. Created in 1926 by Ashton B. Collins, Sr., the commercial manager for the Alabama Power Company, the long-limbed happy-go-lucky cartoon character was used to promote the relatively new power of electricity. Consisting of a body and limbs made from lightning bolts with a light bulb for a nose and wall outlets for ears, Reddy’s popularity led to his syndication and licensed use by over 150 public utilities and at least twelve foreign countries. Among the licensees was Minnesota Power & Light (MP&L), now Minnesota Power, which had acquired the Little Falls Water Power Company and Royalton Power & Light Company in 1924. Minnesota Power currently serves customers in the northeastern quarter of Minnesota, including much of Morrison County.
Reddy Kilowatt was created as part of a campaign to humanize electricity and sell the benefits of cheap, clean, helpful, ready power to the waiting consumer. Companies such as MP&L became subscribers to the Reddy Kilowatt “mat service” which from the 1930s until the late 1960s provided sheets of advertising clip art showing Reddy in a variety of poses. The idea for the character reportedly came when Collins was driving home from an industry convention during a lightning-filled thunderstorm. The character he dreamed up has been used in a wide variety of advertising and promotional circulars and has appeared as everything from nightlights and cookie cutters to huge lighted signs and three-dimensional stuffed figures. Reddy was even featured in a 1947 comic book (“Reddy Kilowatt in Reddy Made Magic – The Amazing True Story of Electricity”) and a movie of the same name that was produced one year earlier by the studio of Walter Lantz. In 1959, the same movie was updated to create a new film, “The Mighty Atom”. This film included much of the old footage with the addition of a new sequence promoting the use of atomic energy.
In an era of increasing energy consumption juxtaposed with a heightened awareness of the need to use less, it should not come as a surprise that Reddy Kilowatt, that charming lightning bolt character who served for decades as the emblem of electricity, remains a beloved figure. Created to present a positive image of electric power, Reddy faded out with the conservation movements of the 1960s and 70s only to return re-invented as the champion of power company energy efficiency efforts. Purchased in 1998 by Northern States Power, which later became Xcel Energy, Reddy now sports a compact fluorescent instead of an incandescent bulb for a nose and is focused on the promotion of conservation within the utility industry. Though his image will undoubtedly continue to change over time, Reddy’s impact guarantees him a place in the hallowed halls of popular culture. As Reddy Kilowatt himself says, “I’m a real live wire and I never tire….I’m the little man who’s always there. I’m a powerful high voltage guy.”
Minnesota Power. 2012. Allete, Inc. 9 October 2012 http://www.mnpower.com/.
Minnesota Power & Light, Business & Industry Collection. Morrison County Historical Society, Little Falls, MN.
National Museum of American History. Smithsonian. 29 August 2012 http://americanhistory.si.edu/collections.
O’Donnell, Arthur. “The Guilty Environmentalist: Resurrecting Reddy Kilowatt.” The Energy Overseer. 2012. 29 August 2012 http://www.energyoverseer.com/WebPDFs/REDDY.pdf.
REDDYKILOWATT.ORG. 29 August 2012 http://www.reddykilowatt.org/.
Reddy Kilowatt Song. “The Walter Lantz Cartune Encyclopedia: Miscellaneous Cartunes. Reddy Made Magic.” The Walter Lantz-o-Pedia. 2010. Misce-Looney-Ous Blog. 19 September 2012 http://www.lantz.goldenagecartoons.com/misc/
“The Walter Lantz Cartune Encyclopedia: Miscellaneous Cartunes. Reddy Made Magic.” The Walter
Lantz-o-Pedia. 2010. Misce-Looney-Ous Blog. 19 September 2012 http://www.lantz.goldenagecartoons.com/misc/.
-By Ann Marie Johnson
This article originally appeared in the Morrison County Historical Society newsletter, Volume 25, Number 3, 2012.