The Edison of 1879

The cover of the July 5 special History Issue of TIME magazine features Thomas Edison holding a glowing bulb. A series of articles celebrate Edison’s many inventions and closes with this: “Edison’s laboratories were the forerunners of the interactive technological think tanks of Apple, Google, and Microsoft.” Though the sentiment lauds Edison, I think it’s an overstatement.

The September 1924 issue of Electrical World (a then-sister magazine of POWER that began in 1874 and solidly supported Edison until his death in 1931) published a “retrospective glance” by Francis Jehl, an early Edison associate, titled “The Edison of 1879.” (You can download the article from the online version of this story at Jehl notes that “When Edison conducted those epoch-making researches which revolutionized the world he had six laboratory assistants who carried out the experiments under his direction and supervision.” His point is that though others were at work in the lab, the ideas were Edison’s alone.

Come to think of it, even many of our more recent achievements, like those coming from the companies TIME lists, have been largely shaped by individuals. As a recent Fast Company article notes, “Apple’s engineers spend 100% of their time making products planned by a small club of senior managers—and sometimes entirely by Jobs himself. The CEO appoints himself the de facto product manager for every important release.” And then there’s Google, the brainchild of a duo—Larry Page and Sergey Brin—even though their enterprise now consists of many other technology experts.

Perhaps the real lesson is that though individuals may come up with brilliant breakthroughs, they depend upon the hands of many others to bring those breakthroughs to the masses and carry them forward.

The TIME stories couldn’t possibly cover everything interesting about Edison, so here are a few more tidbits related to our industry.

The First Electric Power Source

Jehl described Edison’s contributions as historic: “Edison’s genius and manner of research work created a new epoch, the Edisonian age. The history of modern electric lighting and distribution dates from 1878, when he formulated the essential requirements for an electric distribution system” and formed the Edison Electric Light Co. On October 21, 1879, the first filament lamp brightened the world, although it ran only two days.

Edison’s Pearl Street Station, located at 257 Pearl Street in lower Manhattan, closed its breaker for the first time at 3 p.m. on September 4, 1882, a month before the first issue of POWER was published. Four Babcock & Wilcox boilers provided steam for the high-speed steam engines that powered six 100-kW “Jumbo” dynamos (also designed by Edison) nicknamed after P.T. Barnum’s elephant for its size and weight (27 tons). Direct driving the dynamos was also an Edison first, as was the invention of many switches, fuses, and numerous other devices in the plant needed to protect man and machine. Edison’s genius touched every part and component installed at Pearl Street Station.

The first commercial power plant supplied DC power just for lighting to businesses within a square mile of the plant. And when the lights burned out, Edison sold replacements for $1.00 each.

Edison’s DNA is also found in today’s analog meters (now being replaced by digital, bidirectional “smart” meters). He invented the “electrolytic meter” to capture customer power usage over time for billing purposes. Though construction of the plant and distribution wires reportedly cost $300,000, and ongoing operating costs (such as transporting coal into Manhattan for the steam engines) were exorbitant. Edison did not charge for electricity until the plant operated reliably. The first bill went to Ansonia Brass and Copper Co. on January 18, 1883, for $50.44. The November 1883 billings for lighting were $9,102.45. By 1884, the plant began to turn a profit.

Mean Streets

Generating electricity from six dynamos operating in parallel was a technological breakthrough of the first order, but so was the complex network of wires hanging from poles. The square mile serviced by Pearl Street soon became a cobweb of crossbeams and sagging current-carrying wires as new customers were added. An eye-witness account said, “there were forests of poles downtown… and firemen had the greatest difficult in raising their ladders.” There are many stories of children climbing the poles only to have an encounter with uninsulated wires that didn’t end well. Edison soon convinced the city leaders, at first leery about digging up city streets in the heart of Manhattan’s business district, that burying 100,000 feet of wire was the proper decision. Edison supposedly protested saying, “Why? You don’t lift water pipes and gas pipes on stilts!”

The public danger of exposed wires remained a concern for many years. In fact, Brooklyn residents were so used to dodging shocks from the electric trolley tracks when playing street baseball that they named their new professional baseball team the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1898.

The End of the Beginning

A fire that broke out on January 2, 1890, destroyed the plant. Only Jumbo No. 9 escaped ruin. The plant was rebuilt and continued to operate until larger and more efficient plants were built nearby. Pearl Street was decommissioned in 1895 and the building was later demolished. A commemorative plaque was placed on the site of the original building in 1917 that can still viewed today.

Edison’s close friend Henry Ford moved the remains of Edison’s original Menlo Park, N.J., laboratory and the surviving dynamo to The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich., in 1930. The next time you are in Dearborn, pay your respects to the Wizard of Menlo Park by visiting his laboratory and Jumbo No. 9. You won’t be disappointed.

—Dr. Robert Peltier, PE, is POWER’s editor-in-chief.

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