While working with the theory’s pioneer, Frederick W. Taylor, in 1906, Cooke came to view the monopolistic utility companies of that era as a distorting and corrupting force in American life.
“Cooke's interest in reforming utilities and society grew after he became director of public works in Philadelphia in 1911,” writes University of Mobile professor Randall Dupont in a paper published in 2000. “He saw the tremendous role scientific management could have in reforming society.”
By the 1930s, Cooke was challenging the utilities’ rural load forecasts as “inadequate and misleading.” And he questioned their assertions that it was too expensive to build power lines in rural areas, that farmers couldn’t afford electricity, and that they didn’t have much need for it.
He pointed out that nine out of 10 French farms and almost seven out of 10 New Zealand farms had power, while only one out of 10 American farms had it.
American farms were at a competitive disadvantage by the “inaccessibility of an essential technological resource," Cooke wrote in 1937. Lights and power would improve farm efficiency and production and bring farmers into the mainstream of the American culture and economy. Just having a radio in the farmhouse could make a huge difference.
Cooke used scientific management principles to organize REA, and his field staff used them to advise farmers on how to organize and operate electric co-ops. But the biggest impact, according to Dupont, was on distribution line construction.
“For rural electrification to be successful, Cooke had to lower the costs of constructing power lines. This was perhaps his biggest challenge and one well suited for scientific management,” he writes.
“Facts, facts, facts” were needed, Cooke declared, and the investor-owned utilities (IOUs) were either unwilling or unable to provide them.
"Cost-finding as commonly practiced throughout the industrial world is all but unknown among the utilities," he claimed in a study presented to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1936.
Common practice back then was to construct power lines “for the ages,” with short spans between bulky poles. But Cooke and his team of innovative young engineers reasoned that in rural settings, longer spans and lighter poles could be used, as well as smaller transformers.
REA was able to reduce line costs by up to 50 percent, lowering the per-mile rate from around $1,800 to $900. And the area-coverage concept REA and the co-ops adopted resulted in lower long-term costs. The co-ops built all the necessary lines and then waited patiently for the loads on each circuit to grow.
This was in contrast to the IOUs’ approach of extending lines in snake-like fashion only to the areas with the most profit potential—usually along main roads–and then doing it again a few years later as other roads became profitable.
“By the time of Cooke's death in 1960, nine out of 10 farms had electricity,” Dupont notes. “Although rural electrification did not prevent the population migration from the farm to the city as Cooke said, it may have curtailed it. For those who did remain on the farm, rural electrification enriched their quality of life in ways they could have hardly imagined. Rural America was now a part of mainstream America -- both economically and culturally.”