Scanning Around With Gene: The Great Reddy Kilowatt

It’s hard to imagine when people didn’t take electricity for granted, yet in the beginning electricity was restricted primarily to lighting. And as a utility, it was not well understood. People could wrap their heads around the concept of gas, but electricity remained a mystery.
In 1926, Ashton B. Collins was working at the Alabama Power Company and thinking of how to educate people about electricity and promote its use. He dreamed up a character he called Reddy Kilowatt. Not an artist himself, Collins asked Dan Clinton, an engineer from the company’s drafting department, to draw the character. Click on any image for a larger version.

When Reddy first appeared at the Alabama Electrical Exposition, he had five arms to demonstrate the many capabilities of electricity. Collins maintained the rights to the character and sat on it for a few years but then hired another artist to do a few sketches so he could sell the idea of Reddy to other power companies.

By the end of 1934, Collins had six electric companies signed up to license the character for use in advertising, promotions, and education. Eventually more than 300 United States electric companies licensed Reddy and subscribed to a clip-art service featuring Reddy.

There were drawings of Reddy at various holidays, drawings of Reddy using modern appliances, and drawings of Reddy giving out safety tips. Collins’ company promoted Reddy through clip art, film strips, and other licensed products.

There were even animated Reddy cartoons produced by Walter Lantz Productions (of Woody Woodpecker and friends), though Reddy didn’t achieve much success as an animated character.

Reddy was only licensed to investor-owned electric companies, not to public utilities or rural electric cooperatives. As more communities sought to “nationalize” electricity production, Reddy became a spokesperson for free enterprise and independent business ownership.

When nuclear power came online, Reddy was put to work explaining the technology and promoting its safety. Reddy starred in booklets, comic strips, filmstrips, and films.

Collins believed that educating young people on the benefits of electricity was key to the technology’s success. So Reddy was targeted to kids and even made appearances as a costumed character.

Reddy eventually appeared in a number of countries. The licensing business was a family affair: In addition to Collins himself (who died in 1976), his wife and two sons also worked at the company. It was sold in 1998 to Northern States Power, a subsidiary of power giant Xcel Energy.

The Smithsonian has the Reddy Kilowatt archives, which are extensive, and you still see Reddy material in collectible shops, antique stores, and on eBay. There was even a Reddy Kilowatt typeface, but sadly I couldn’t find a presentable example.

With a light bulb nose, plugs for ears, and a body made of lightning bolts, what’s not to like about Reddy Kilowatt?
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Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. He has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. Gene's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on
  • Anonymous says:

    I always enjoy your articles! Agreed, what’s not to love about a lightbulb nose! Have a great weekend Gene :[)

  • Anonymous says:

    How much did Collins make from his licensed character?

  • Anonymous says:

    Have you heard of Willy Wirehand, Reddy’s counterpart with the electric cooperatives?

    Jim Lukens-Gable
    [email protected]

  • Anonymous says:

    As a letterpress printer, I’ve been hoping to find a cut of Reddy. Now you say there might be a font? Boy, am I in trouble. :)

  • Anonymous says:

    I can still remember an afternoon in the mid-fifties when a pollster (I guess you’d call him) stopped at our house to ask which of two promotional slogans/graphic presentations we preferred. One was based on the notion of a “full power” house and the other on that of a “balanced power” house–in other words, electricity only or electricity+gas. I think this was my introduction to advertising “spin” and “political correctness”. I am fairly certain that my father, being a Taft Republican, opted for “full power.” I don’t think any of the households in the area were electricity only.

  • Anonymous says:

    Sorry. That was awful.

    Anyhow, it’s always struck me as ironic that Reddy’s name implies using less electricity, while his ads always promoted using more.

  • Anonymous says:

    This website is an unofficial web site dedicated to Reddy Kilowatt with lots of stuff to see, including a tattoo!

  • Anonymous says:

    Even Reddy courted his share of controversy. Read about his competition Willie Wirehand here:

  • Anonymous says:

    This character has been in ly life since my father worked for a Utility in El Salvador, the same one I work for now. As I was a kid and my Dad only a lineman we never understood why it was removed from all trucks when government took control of Operations and why a new copyright agreement was no longer signed off. He promoted free enterprise!!! Great info…..Thanks for this, I will read the article to my Dad…mistery solved after 35 years……….

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