Marker balls for overhead lines


CALIFORNIA, Mo. -- A dozen years ago, a chance flight by the late Arkansas Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller put Jack Rutledge in business.

Since then, he has been expanding his manufacture of brightly colored safety markers for electric and telephone lines. They probably have saved countless lives.


While it is not the only company producing the markers, Rutledge's Tana Wire Marker Co. has become a leader because of his ability to modify the product to the needs of the consumer.

'We've been making balls for 12 years, and we just keep learning more and more problems,' Rutledge said. 'The power companies have problems that God couldn't have thought of.'

He said the basic line marker runs about $30, but the largest -- 54 inches -- sells for $300.

However, Rutledge said special effects with the Northern Lights caused the Canadian government to order special large line markers internally coated with silver beads, hiking the cost each to $2,500. The U.S. Department of Energy ordered ones to deal with similar problems but coated with carbon and costing much less.


Tana produces 4,500 a year, a figure Rutledge said is rising steadily, and more than 30 percent go overseas.

Tana is hidden away behind of an old grain elevator in California, a county seat town of about 3,000. Rutledge operates in an informal fashion, chomping on a cigar as he talks about his experiences.

Now 62, he was operating a less than successful fiberglass boat manufacturing plant in Little Rock when he first received a call from the head of the Arkansas Department of Aeronautics, Eddie Holland.

Holland had been flying around the state with Rockefeller when suddenly the governor looked out to see some electric wires outside the aircraft.

'Rocky apparently looked out the window and saw some wires go by as they prepared to land and said, 'What in the hell was that?',' Rutledge said.

After it was explained that there were wires like that at the end of about every airport in the country, Rockfeller ordered something done.

That's where Rutledge came in. Spotting a small advertisement in the Yellow Pages, Holland came by to see if Rutledge could make something to make wires more visible to pilots.

There were problems, however. The linebulbs had to be durable and could not slip in the wind. Rutledge, an engineer, was the first to come up with the solution -- making his company one of the primary suppliers of the products throughout the world.


Arkansas officials were given the go-ahead by Rockefeller to mark any line conmstituting a hazard.

'Nowadays, you've got helicopters that, by their very nature, are flying into all sorts of awkward situations,' he added. 'For example, almost every major hospital now wants to have a helicopter pad. That's usually out on the hospital lawn totally surrounded with a rat's nest of power and communications wires.'

Rutledge started out with a standard 20-inch ball, which seemed to be the most practical to be seen by a pilot in time to take evasive action. But, he learned some wanted 9-inch balls. Others wanted them 12 inches and finally he got an order for a 54-inch ball to mark the gorge at the Salmon River Electric Co-Op in Idaho.

In the Rocky Mountains, airplanes have to survey power lines which often run from one mountain peak to another, several hundred yards apart. Different sizes of wire are used. But all the problems were overcome by Rutledge's engineering.

Airplanes are not the only ones who must be alerted. Rutledge said in the Florida Keys and at the Lake of the Ozarks, they have sold the highly visible markers to power companies to prevent boats with aluminum masts from coming into contact with power lines.


Conservationists in the Mississippi Flyway found Canadian geese were being killed when they tried to come down in bad weather and struck power lines.

'Governmental agencies and private conservation groups began marking the lines to keep the geese alive,' he said.

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