US District Court ruled in 1956 for Willie
The epic battle was played out in US District Court, Eastern District South Carolina, Judge Harry Watkins presiding. In this grudge match of 60 years ago, nothing less than the icons of the investor-owned and rural cooperative utilities were at stake.
The plaintiff, the company behind the "fanciful character" of the electric utility industry, Reddy Kilowatt. Ashton Collins, who owned eighty percent of the company, had given birth to Reddy some twenty years earlier. Investor-owned utilities, 109 of them, owned the remaining twenty percent. Utilities paid the company one cent per annum per customer meter, amounting to $290 thousand then (equivalent to $2.5 million now).
While 118 utilities in the US and 38 utilities abroad licensed Reddy, to support their image, public power and rural cooperative utilities were turned away when requesting a license. Responding to the desire of its members to have an similarly endearing character, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) held a contest, with a $50 prize to the winner, and introduced Willie Wiredhand in 1951. The name was a play on the common term for farm labor: hired hand.
Mid-Carolina Electric Cooperative became caught in the intrigue between investor-owned and coops and became a co-defendant with NRECA. Had it infringed on the Reddy mark?
Reddy had knocked out, in the courts, every pretender to date: The Willing Watts, Eddie Edison, Elec-tric, Mr. Watts-His-Name, and Mr. Watt-A-Worker had all gone down for the count.
But Judge Watkins found:
"The names Reddy Kilowatt and Willie Wiredhand are entirely different. The two figures themselves do not look alike."
"Reddy Kilowatt is made up of a body, arms and legs of jagged lines simulating lightning ... with a round head having a nose made up from an electric light bulb, and plug-in socket for ears."
"Willie Wiredhand is made up of a male plug for the hips and legs, a wire for the body, and a socket for the head, with the push button thereof representing the nose."
The Court consequently ruled for Willie.
Starting with the February issue, Public Utilities Fortnightly is bringing back Reddy Kilowatt, who US District Judge Watkins called "an animated, personalized, humanized character ... symbolizing electricity." Licensed by Reddy's present owner, he'll appear once in a different spot in each issue.
Steve Mitnick, Editor-in-Chief, Public Utilities Fortnightly
E-mail me: firstname.lastname@example.org