Denver's Electric Fountain

Out in Denver a couple weeks ago, we met for drinks with Larry Kerecman, who is the guy behind the controls for Macy's Holiday Light show in Philly. After exchanging old stories from our respective times in Ithaca, including (intentional) cremora explosions (with my old friend Joe, a former Boulder resident who happened to be back in town with his wife to sell his house) and being chased by ball lightning (Larry), we got to hear about Larry's "magnum opus". 

(Photo from Atlantic Fountains)

Larry has been one of the main driving forces behind the reconstruction of the 1908 "Prismatic Electric Fountain", which is in the middle of Ferril Lake at City Park in Denver.  My friend Joe and his wife, long time EMS workers in and around Denver, who know a thing or two about the city, both said, "there's a fountain in City Park?". Apparently, it's been broken for a long, long time. Interestingly, it looks like the Google satellite flew over when the lake was drained:

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If you zoom in, you can actually see the fountain vault under construction--Larry's probably in there somewhere. Once again, Larry laid out many of the details in a nice email, so I'll just quote him:

The guy who invented it, Frederic W. Darlington, developed the first remote-control color changing mechanism for underwater fountain lights in the 1890s (and got a patent on it in 1899!) He really advanced the concept of the fountain show by devising the first electrical remote control systems for fountain valves and lights, using compressed air to activate the mechanical mechanisms. This all happened long before Dancing/Waltzing Waters got started in Germany in the 1930s. 

The Electric Fountain in Denver deteriorated to the point of not working at all by the late 1970s. Under the auspices of the Landmark Preservation Commission we tore down the old fountain vault in 2005 and built a faithful replica of it the following year while 28-acre Ferril Lake was drained for other work. Inside the vault is state-of-the art equipment all run via DMX-512 by a highly-customized version of the ACCESS musical fountain control program from Atlantic Fountains in Clinton, Connecticut. Pathway Connectivity is well represented in the equipment list and the incandescent lights use IGBT-based dimmers from Lightolier. Eric Altvater at Atlantic Fountains is a great guy to work with.

The original 1908 fountain had 2087 nozzles controlled in 12 groups with 11 sources of light, each capable of displaying one of 31 colors of light. The new 1908 fountain has 2005 nozzles controlled in 30 groups with 28 incandescent and 112 RGB LED individually controlled underwater light fixtures. Denver is the only city in the world to tackle the technically-daunting task of an historic reconstruction of a Darlington fountain. One of the things that made this project more difficult was the single source of pressurized water - 650 feet away from the fountain in a pump house on shore.

Modern fountain design typically uses multiple smaller pumps controlled by VFDs [ed: Variable Frequency Drives, which allow motor speed to be varied]  This is the approach I took with the re-design of the fountains for the show in Philly, but Lord & Taylor didn't have the money to rebuild the fountain show. In Denver, I ended up specifying pneumatically operated valves which use a 4-20 milliamp loop signal (from the process control world) which is generated in modules having a 0-10 Volt input signal de-multiplexed from the DMX-512 data stream.

This is the first major fountain in North America to use the new Oase (from Germany) high-power LED fixtures to light water features that reach up to 90-feet in height. It was dedicated just before the Democratic National Convention in August, just as the old fountain was dedicated in time for the 1908 Democratic convention here in Denver.

The Electric Fountain runs nightly shows during the summer season and will feature a music system in 2009 broadcast via an FM transmission rather than bollard speakers around the lake like the Bellagio. Being a city park, the nearby neighbors did not want an outdoor speaker system.

Just like in Philadelphia, tradition played a huge role in how this project played out. While re-creating the fascinating Darlington water patterns, we knew that we had to compete with the expectations of people used to modern water features in theme parks and in Las Vegas. The resulting blend of old and new seems to be a big success - the nightly audiences are a great blend of oldsters who remember the old fountain and young people who are seeing it for the first time.

(Of course, if you find any of those technical terms confusing, I can recommend a book.)

More info, including lots of great technical photos, on the Friends of the Electric Fountain page, and on Atlantic Fountains page, where they also have some (unfortunately, un-embeddable) videos.  If you're in Denver this summer, you should definitely stop by!