Thomas McLaughlin, First Managing Director of ESB, 1896 – 1971
The Shannon Scheme is perhaps the most important industrial project ever completed in the Irish state and to this day it continues to make a significant contribution to the industrial, commercial and social development of the country.
One of the driving forces behind the Scheme was a young man, Thomas McLaughlin, born in Drogheda in 1896. McLaughlin was an innovator and academic. His masters was in physics and by the age of 27, McLaughlin had achieved a PhD in engineering, a year after the Free State was established.
McLaughlin’s break came when he joined the German firm Siemens-Schuckert in 1922. Later that year he was sent to Berlin to study the design of power plants and the manufacture of electrical machinery. During this time McLaughlin also took the time to visit power plants in operation and drew inspiration from the power plant in Pomerania, an agricultural province very similar to Ireland. He also studied similar models in Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, France, Canada and United States. He soon ruled out the option of using peat or coal as the basis for an immediate solution to Ireland’s future energy needs, and together with his colleagues in Siemens, came to the conclusion that hydro-electric power was a more realistic option for utilizing native resources in the Irish Free State.
In an interview in 1938 with Radio Éireann McLaughlin noted
‘No sincere student could have lived through that the whole period of intense national enthusiasm without feeling a passionate desire to do all in his power to assist in national reconstruction, and in the building up of the country by development from within. It was with this intense feeling I began my career abroad, and the ideal never for a moment left me until it brought me home again to see the Shannon Scheme realised. It was little credit to me – I could have no mental peace, no sense of self-fulfilment until my mission in life, as it had then become to me was realised. Everything I saw abroad, everything I read of, brought just one thing to my mind – can this development be applied at home? Could we have this in Ireland? Such were the natural yearnings of a youth that inspiring period’
McLaughlin returned to Ireland in December 1923. Because of his personal friendship with many Government ministers, McLaughlin had the opportunity to present his proposals to the most influential members of Government, with the result that Siemens were given the green light to prepare a paper detailing its full proposals. These proposals were later adapted to become a White Paper and were evaluated by an independent international team of four experts appointed by the Government. The expert team charged with undertaking a technical and commercial evaluation approved the plans subject to some minor modifications.
Patrick McGilligan, Minister for Industry and Commerce considered various options –setting up a new Government department to manage the activity; allowing a private enterprise in Ireland to take over responsibility; putting a large foreign undertaking in charge. This third possibility was given serious consideration as he visited the United States and met several interested parties. McLaughlin, however, urged the Government to consent to his view that such rapid development could only be achieved through unified control of production and distribution, and this provided the impetus for the legislation in 1927 that created the Electricity Supply Board, the first semi-state body in Ireland. He was appointed as the first Managing Director.
The challenge facing him in his new post was immense. His main task was to oversee the setting up of an organisation, which took over the newly built power station at Ardnacrusha, and in a number of other small generating stations, many of which were privately owned. In addition, a complex distribution system which had been based on a Direct Current system had to be replaced with an Alternating system. Networks had to be constructed in towns where none existed. Private undertakings had to be purchased where the owners agreed to sell. Wiring systems had to be re-configured for houses and industry and promotional tariff rates devised. McLaughlin appointed E.A. Lawlor as his public-relations manager; the first appointment of its kind in Ireland. McLaughlin, Lawler and his senior management team quickly set about expanding consumer demand for the power that was to come on stream from Ardnacrusha in 1929.
McLaughlin’s approach to marketing was refreshing. He was assisted by his wife, who became the first President of the Irish Women’s Electrical Association, which promoted the use of electricity for household use. McLaughlin appointed a few engineers on a contractual basis for a limited period, who had experience working abroad, notably in Sweden, Germany and Canada. These engineers played a critical role in transferring their technical knowledge to the engineering staff who were recruited mainly from the newly emerging group of Irish-trained engineers. ESB had rapidly expanded and before the end of 1931 the organisation had created thirteen new District Offices, each with a District Engineer and District Accountant. These had been created to ensure local staff with local knowledge were at hand to tackle any emerging problems.