Thomas Alva Edison
In Menlo Park, NJ

Edison in 1878







Published in New York by Harper Brothers, 1929



A NOTED inventor once said at the end of a lifetime of fighting to defend his rights, that he found there were three stages in all great inventions: the first, in which people said the thing could not be done; the second, in which they said anybody could do it; and the third, in which they said it had always been done by everybody. In his central- station work Edison has had very much this kind of experience; for while many of his opponents came to acknowledge the novelty and utility of his plans, and gave him unstinted praise, there are doubtless others who to this day profess to look upon him merely as an adapter. How different the view of so eminent a scientist as Lord Kelvin was, may be appreciated from his remark when in later years, in reply to the question why some one else did not invent so obvious and simple a thing as the Feeder System, he said: "The only answer I can think of is that no one else was Edison."

Undaunted by the attitude of doubt and the predictions of impossibility, Edison had pushed on until he was now able to realize all his ideas as to the establishment of a central station in the work that culminated in New York City in 1882. After he had conceived the broad plan, his ambition was to create the initial plant on Manhattan Island, where it would be convenient of access for watching its operation, and where the demonstration of its practicability would have influence in financial circles. The first intention was to cover a district extending from Canal Street on the north to Wall Street on the south; but Edison soon realized that this territory was too extensive for the initial experiment, and he decided finally upon the district included between Wall, Nassau, Spruce, and Ferry streets, Peck Slip and the East River, an area nearly a square mile in extent. One of the preliminary steps taken to enable him to figure on such a station and system was to have men go through this district on various days and note the number of gas jets burning at each hour up to two or three o'clock in the morning. The next step was to divide the region into a number of sub-districts and institute a house-to-house canvass to ascertain precisely the data and conditions pertinent to the project. When the canvass was over, Edison knew exactly how many gas jets there were in every building in the entire district, the average hours of burning, and the cost of light; also every consumer of power, and the quantity used; every hoistway to which an electric motor could be applied; and other details too numerous to mention, such as related to the gas itself, the satisfaction of the customers, and the limitations of day and night demand. All this information was embodied graphically in large maps of the district, by annotations in colored inks; and Edison thus could study the question with every detail before him. Such a reconnaissance, like that of a coming field of battle, was invaluable, and may help give a further idea of the man's inveterate care for the minutiae of things.

The laboratory note-books of this period--1878- 80, more particularly--show an immense amount of calculation by Edison and his chief mathematician, Mr. Upton, on conductors for the distribution of current over large areas, and then later in the district described. With the results of this canvass before them, the sizes of the main conductors to be laid throughout the streets of this entire territory were figured, block by block; and the results were then placed on the map. These data revealed the fact that the quantity of copper required for the main conductors would be exceedingly large and costly; and, if ever, Edison was somewhat dismayed. But as usual this apparently insurmountable difficulty only spurred him on to further effort. It was but a short time thereafter that he solved the knotty problem by an invention mentioned in a previous chapter. This is known as the "feeder and main" system, for which he signed the application for a patent on August 4, 1880. As this invention effected a saving of seven-eighths of the cost of the chief conductors in a straight multiple arc system, the mains for the first district were refigured, and enormous new maps were made, which became the final basis of actual installation, as they were subsequently enlarged by the addition of every proposed junction-box, bridge safety-catch box, and street-intersection box in the whole area.

When this patent, after protracted fighting, was sustained by Judge Green in 1893, the Electrical Engineer remarked that the General Electric Company "must certainly feel elated" because of its importance; and the journal expressed its fear that although the specifications and claims related only to the maintenance of uniform pressure of current on lighting circuits, the owners might naturally seek to apply it also to feeders used in the electric-railway work already so extensive. At this time, however, the patent had only about a year of life left, owing to the expiration of the corresponding English patent. The fact that thirteen years had elapsed gives a vivid idea of the ordeal involved in sustaining a patent and the injustice to the inventor, while there is obviously hardship to those who cannot tell from any decision of the court whether they are infringing or not. It is interesting to note that the preparation for hearing this case in New Jersey was accompanied by models to show the court exactly the method and its economy, as worked out in comparison with what is known as the "tree system" of circuits--the older alternative way of doing it. As a basis of comparison, a district of thirty-six city blocks in the form of a square was assumed. The power station was placed at the centre of the square; each block had sixteen consumers using fifteen lights each. Conductors were run from the station to supply each of the four quarters of the district with light. In one example the "feeder" system was used; in the other the "tree." With these models were shown two cubes which represented one one-hundredth of the actual quantity of copper required for each quarter of the district by the two-wire tree system as compared with the feeder system under like conditions. The total weight of copper for the four quarter districts by the tree system was 803,250 pounds, but when the feeder system was used it was only 128,739 pounds! This was a reduction from $23.24 per lamp for copper to $3.72 per lamp. Other models emphasized this extraordinary contrast. At the time Edison was doing this work on economizing in conductors, much of the criticism against him was based on the assumed extravagant use of copper implied in the obvious "tree" system, and it was very naturally said that there was not enough copper in the world to supply his demands. It is true that the modern electrical arts have been a great stimulator of copper production, now taking a quarter of all made; yet evidently but for such inventions as this such arts could not have come into existence at all, or else in growing up they would have forced copper to starvation prices.[11]

[11] For description of feeder patent see Appendix.

It should be borne in mind that from the outset Edison had determined upon installing underground conductors as the only permanent and satisfactory method for the distribution of current from central stations in cities; and that at Menlo Park he laid out and operated such a system with about four hundred and twenty-five lamps. The underground system there was limited to the immediate vicinity of the laboratory and was somewhat crude, as well as much less complicated than would be the network of over eighty thousand lineal feet, which he calculated to be required for the underground circuits in the first district of New York City. At Menlo Park no effort was made for permanency; no provision was needed in regard to occasional openings of the street for various purposes; no new customers were to be connected from time to time to the mains, and no repairs were within contemplation. In New York the question of permanency was of paramount importance, and the other contingencies were sure to arise as well as conditions more easy to imagine than to forestall. These problems were all attacked in a resolute, thoroughgoing manner, and one by one solved by the invention of new and unprecedented devices that were adequate for the purposes of the time, and which are embodied in apparatus of slight modification in use up to the present day.

Just what all this means it is hard for the present generation to imagine. New York and all the other great cities in 1882, and for some years thereafter, were burdened and darkened by hideous masses of overhead wires carried on ugly wooden poles along all the main thoroughfares. One after another rival telegraph and telephone, stock ticker, burglar-alarm, and other companies had strung their circuits without any supervision or restriction; and these wires in all conditions of sag or decay ramified and crisscrossed in every direction, often hanging broken and loose-ended for months, there being no official compulsion to remove any dead wire. None of these circuits carried dangerous currents; but the introduction of the arc light brought an entirely new menace in the use of pressures that were even worse than the bully of the West who "kills on sight," because this kindred peril was invisible, and might lurk anywhere. New poles were put up, and the lighting circuits on them, with but a slight insulation of cotton impregnated with some "weather-proof" compound, straggled all over the city exposed to wind and rain and accidental contact with other wires, or with the metal of buildings. So many fatalities occurred that the insulated wire used, called "underwriters," because approved by the insurance bodies, became jocularly known as "undertakers," and efforts were made to improve its protective qualities. Then came the overhead circuits for distributing electrical energy to motors for operating elevators, driving machinery, etc., and these, while using a lower, safer potential, were proportionately larger. There were no wires underground. Morse had tried that at the very beginning of electrical application, in telegraphy, and all agreed that renewals of the experiment were at once costly and foolish. At last, in cities like New York, what may be styled generically the "overhead system" of wires broke down under its own weight; and various methods of underground conductors were tried, hastened in many places by the chopping down of poles and wires as the result of some accident that stirred the public indignation. One typical tragic scene was that in New York, where, within sight of the City Hall, a lineman was killed at his work on the arc light pole, and his body slowly roasted before the gaze of the excited populace, which for days afterward dropped its silver and copper coin into the alms-box nailed to the fatal pole for the benefit of his family. Out of all this in New York came a board of electrical control, a conduit system, and in the final analysis the Public Service Commission, that is credited to Governor Hughes as the furthest development of utility corporation control.

The "road to yesterday" back to Edison and his insistence on underground wires is a long one, but the preceding paragraph traces it. Even admitting that the size and weight of his low-tension conductors necessitated putting them underground, this argues nothing against the propriety and sanity of his methods. He believed deeply and firmly in the analogy between electrical supply and that for water and gas, and pointed to the trite fact that nobody hoisted the water and gas mains into the air on stilts, and that none of the pressures were inimical to human safety. The arc-lighting methods were unconsciously and unwittingly prophetic of the latter-day long-distance transmissions at high pressure that, electrically, have placed the energy of Niagara at the command of Syracuse and Utica, and have put the power of the falling waters of the Sierras at the disposal of San Francisco, two hundred miles away. But within city limits overhead wires, with such space-consuming potentials, are as fraught with mischievous peril to the public as the dynamite stored by a nonchalant contractor in the cellar of a schoolhouse. As an offset, then, to any tendency to depreciate the intrinsic value of Edison's lighting work, let the claim be here set forth modestly and subject to interference, that he was the father of under- ground wires in America, and by his example outlined the policy now dominant in every city of the first rank. Even the comment of a cynic in regard to electrical development may be accepted: "Some electrical companies wanted all the air; others apparently had use for all the water; Edison only asked for the earth."

The late Jacob Hess, a famous New York Republican politician, was a member of the commission appointed to put the wires underground in New York City, in the "eighties." He stated that when the commission was struggling with the problem, and examining all kinds of devices and plans, patented and unpatented, for which fabulous sums were often asked, the body turned to Edison in its perplexity and asked for advice. Edison said: "All you have to do, gentlemen, is to insulate your wires, draw them through the cheapest thing on earth--iron pipe--run your pipes through channels or galleries under the street, and you've got the whole thing done." This was practically the system adopted and in use to this day. What puzzled the old politician was that Edison would accept nothing for his advice.

Another story may also be interpolated here as to the underground work done in New York for the first Edison station. It refers to the "man higher up," although the phrase had not been coined in those days of lower public morality. That a corporation should be "held up" was accepted philosophically by the corporation as one of the unavoidable incidents of its business; and if the corporation "got back" by securing some privilege without paying for it, the public was ready to condone if not applaud. Public utilities were in the making, and no one in particular had a keen sense of what was right or what was wrong, in the hard, practical details of their development. Edison tells this illuminating story: "When I was laying tubes in the streets of New York, the office received notice from the Commissioner of Public Works to appear at his office at a certain hour. I went up there with a gentleman to see the Commissioner, H. O. Thompson. On arrival he said to me: `You are putting down these tubes. The Department of Public Works requires that you should have five inspectors to look after this work, and that their salary shall be $5 per day, payable at the end of each week. Good-morning.' I went out very much crestfallen, thinking I would be delayed and harassed in the work which I was anxious to finish, and was doing night and day. We watched patiently for those inspectors to appear. The only appearance they made was to draw their pay Saturday afternoon."

Just before Christmas in 1880--December 17--as an item for the silk stocking of Father Knickerbocker --the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York was organized. In pursuance of the policy adhered to by Edison, a license was issued to it for the exclusive use of the system in that territory--Manhattan Island--in consideration of a certain sum of money and a fixed percentage of its capital in stock for the patent rights. Early in 1881 it was altogether a paper enterprise, but events moved swiftly as narrated already, and on June 25, 1881, the first "Jumbo" prototype of the dynamo-electric machines to gen- erate current at the Pearl Street station was put through its paces before being shipped to Paris to furnish new sensations to the flaneur of the boulevards. A number of the Edison officers and employees assembled at Goerck Street to see this "gigantic" machine go into action, and watched its performance with due reverence all through the night until five o'clock on Sunday morning, when it respected the conventionalities by breaking a shaft and suspending further tests. After this dynamo was shipped to France, and its successors to England for the Holborn Viaduct plant, Edison made still further improvements in design, increasing capacity and economy, and then proceeded vigorously with six machines for Pearl Street.

An ideal location for any central station is at the very centre of the district served. It may be questioned whether it often goes there. In the New York first district the nearest property available was a double building at Nos. 255 and 257 Pearl Street, occupying a lot so by 100 feet. It was four stories high, with a fire-wall dividing it into two equal parts. One of these parts was converted for the uses of the station proper, and the other was used as a tube-shop by the underground construction department, as well as for repair-shops, storage, etc. Those were the days when no one built a new edifice for station purposes; that would have been deemed a fantastic extravagance. One early station in New York for arc lighting was an old soap-works whose well-soaked floors did not need much additional grease to render them choice fuel for the inevitable flames. In this Pearl Street instance, the building, erected originally for commercial uses, was quite incapable of sustaining the weight of the heavy dynamos and steam-engines to be installed on the second floor; so the old flooring was torn out and a new one of heavy girders supported by stiff columns was substituted. This heavy construction, more familiar nowadays, and not unlike the supporting metal structure of the Manhattan Elevated road, was erected independent of the enclosing walls, and occupied the full width of 257 Pearl Street, and about three-quarters of its depth. This change in the internal arrangements did not at all affect the ugly external appearance, which did little to suggest the stately and ornate stations since put up by the New York Edison Company, the latest occupying whole city blocks.

Of this episode Edison gives the following account: "While planning for my first New York station-- Pearl Street--of course, I had no real estate, and from lack of experience had very little knowledge of its cost in New York; so I assumed a rather large, liberal amount of it to plan my station on. It occurred to me one day that before I went too far with my plans I had better find out what real estate was worth. In my original plan I had 200 by 200 feet. I thought that by going down on a slum street near the water-front I would get some pretty cheap property. So I picked out the worst dilapidated street there was, and found I could only get two buildings, each 25 feet front, one 100 feet deep and the other 85 feet deep. I thought about $10,000 each would cover it; but when I got the price I found that they wanted $75,000 for one and $80,000 for the other. Then I was compelled to change my plans and go upward in the air where real estate was cheap. I cleared out the building entirely to the walls and built my station of structural ironwork, running it up high."

Into this converted structure was put the most complete steam plant obtainable, together with all the mechanical and engineering adjuncts bearing upon economical and successful operation. Being in a narrow street and a congested district, the plant needed special facilities for the handling of coal and ashes, as well as for ventilation and forced draught. All of these details received Mr. Edison's personal care and consideration on the spot, in addition to the multitude of other affairs demanding his thought. Although not a steam or mechanical engineer, his quick grasp of principles and omnivorous reading had soon supplied the lack of training; nor had he forgotten the practical experience picked up as a boy on the locomotives of the Grand Trunk road. It is to be noticed as a feature of the plant, in common with many of later construction, that it was placed well away from the water's edge, and equipped with non-condensing engines; whereas the modern plant invariably seeks the bank of a river or lake for the purpose of a generous supply of water for its condensing engines or steam-turbines. These are among the refinements of practice coincidental with the advance of the art.

At the award of the John Fritz gold medal in April, 1909, to Charles T. Porter for his work in advancing the knowledge of steam-engineering, and for improvements in engine construction, Mr. Frank J. Sprague spoke on behalf of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers of the debt of electricity to the high-speed steam-engine. He recalled the fact that at the French Exposition of 1867 Mr. Porter installed two Porter-Allen engines to drive electric alternating-current generators for supplying current to primitive lighthouse apparatus. While the engines were not directly coupled to the dynamos, it was a curious fact that the piston speeds and number of revolutions were what is common to-day in isolated direct-coupled plants. In the dozen years following Mr. Porter built many engines with certain common characteristics-- i.e., high piston speed and revolutions, solid engine bed, and babbitt-metal bearings; but there was no electric driving until 1880, when Mr. Porter installed a high-speed engine for Edison at his laboratory in Menlo Park. Shortly after this he was invited to construct for the Edison Pearl Street station the first of a series of engines for so-called "steam-dynamos," each independently driven by a direct-coupled engine. Mr. Sprague compared the relations thus established between electricity and the high-speed engine not to those of debtor and creditor, but rather to those of partners--an industrial marriage--one of the most important in the engineering world. Here were two machines destined to be joined together, economizing space, enhancing economy, augmenting capacity, reducing investment, and increasing dividends.

While rapid progress was being made in this and other directions, the wheels of industry were hum- ming merrily at the Edison Tube Works, for over fifteen miles of tube conductors were required for the district, besides the boxes to connect the network at the street intersections, and the hundreds of junction boxes for taking the service conductors into each of the hundreds of buildings. In addition to the immense amount of money involved, this specialized industry required an enormous amount of experiment, as it called for the development of an entirely new art. But with Edison's inventive fertility--if ever there was a cross-fertilizer of mechanical ideas it is he--and with Mr. Kruesi's never-failing patience and perseverance applied to experiment and evolution, rapid progress was made. A franchise having been obtained from the city, the work of laying the underground conductors began in the late fall of 1881, and was pushed with almost frantic energy. It is not to be supposed, however, that the Edison tube system had then reached a finality of perfection in the eyes of its inventor. In his correspondence with Kruesi, as late as 1887, we find Edison bewailing the inadequacy of the insulation of the conductors under twelve hundred volts pressure, as for example: "Dear Kruesi,--There is nothing wrong with your present compound. It is splendid. The whole trouble is air-bubbles. The hotter it is poured the greater the amount of air-bubbles. At 212 it can be put on rods and there is no bubble. I have a man experimenting and testing all the time. Until I get at the proper method of pouring and getting rid of the air-bubbles, it will be waste of time to experiment with other asphalts. Resin oil distils off easily. It may answer, but paraffine or other similar substances must be put in to prevent brittleness, One thing is certain, and that is, everything must be poured in layers, not only the boxes, but the tubes. The tube itself should have a thin coating. The rope should also have a coating. The rods also. The whole lot, rods and rope, when ready for tube, should have another coat, and then be placed in tube and filled. This will do the business." Broad and large as a continent in his ideas, if ever there was a man of finical fussiness in attention to detail, it is Edison. A letter of seven pages of about the same date in 1887 expatiates on the vicious troubles caused by the air-bubble, and remarks with fine insight into the problems of insulation and the idea of layers of it: "Thus you have three separate coatings, and it is impossible an air-hole in one should match the other."

To a man less thorough and empirical in method than Edison, it would have been sufficient to have made his plans clear to associates or subordinates and hold them responsible for accurate results. No such vicarious treatment would suit him, ready as he has always been to share the work where he could give his trust. In fact he realized, as no one else did at this stage, the tremendous import of this novel and comprehensive scheme for giving the world light; and he would not let go, even if busy to the breaking-point. Though plunged in a veritable maelstrom of new and important business interests, and though applying for no fewer than eighty-nine patents in 1881, all of which were granted, he superintended on the spot all this laying of underground conductors for the first district. Nor did he merely stand around and give orders. Day and night he actually worked in the trenches with the laborers, amid the dirt and paving-stones and hurry-burly of traffic, helping to lay the tubes, filling up junction-boxes, and taking part in all the infinite detail. He wanted to know for himself how things went, why for some occult reason a little change was necessary, what improvement could be made in the material. His hours of work were not regulated by the clock, but lasted until he felt the need of a little rest. Then he would go off to the station building in Pearl Street, throw an overcoat on a pile of tubes, lie down and sleep for a few hours, rising to resume work with the first gang. There was a small bedroom on the third floor of the station available for him, but going to bed meant delay and consumed time. It is no wonder that such impatience, such an enthusiasm, drove the work forward at a headlong pace.

Edison says of this period: "When we put down the tubes in the lower part of New York, in the streets, we kept a big stock of them in the cellar of the station at Pearl Street. As I was on all the time, I would take a nap of an hour or so in the daytime-- any time--and I used to sleep on those tubes in the cellar. I had two Germans who were testing there, and both of them died of diphtheria, caught in the cellar, which was cold and damp. It never affected me."

It is worth pausing just a moment to glance at this man taking a fitful rest on a pile of iron pipe in a dingy building. His name is on the tip of the world's tongue. Distinguished scientists from every part of Europe seek him eagerly. He has just been decorated and awarded high honors by the French Government. He is the inventor of wonderful new apparatus, and the exploiter of novel and successful arts. The magic of his achievements and the rumors of what is being done have caused a wild drop in gas securities, and a sensational rise in his own electric-light stock from $100 to $3500 a share. Yet these things do not at all affect his slumber or his democratic simplicity, for in that, as in everything else, he is attending strictly to business, "doing the thing that is next to him."

Part of the rush and feverish haste was due to the approach of frost, which, as usual in New York, suspended operations in the earth; but the laying of the conductors was resumed promptly in the spring of 1882; and meantime other work had been advanced. During the fall and winter months two more "Jumbo" dynamos were built and sent to London, after which the construction of six for New York was swiftly taken in hand. In the month of May three of these machines, each with a capacity of twelve hundred incandescent lamps, were delivered at Pearl Street and assembled on the second floor. On July 5th--owing to the better opportunity for ceaseless toil given by a public holiday--the construction of the operative part of the station was so far completed that the first of the dynamos was operated under steam; so that three days later the satisfactory experiment was made of throwing its flood of electrical energy into a bank of one thousand lamps on an upper floor. Other tests followed in due course. All was excitement. The field-regulating apparatus and the electrical-pressure indicator--first of its kind--were also tested, and in turn found satisfactory. Another vital test was made at this time-- namely, of the strength of the iron structure itself on which the plant was erected. This was done by two structural experts; and not till he got their report as to ample factors of safety was Edison reassured as to this detail.

A remark of Edison, familiar to all who have worked with him, when it is reported to him that something new goes all right and is satisfactory from all points of view, is: "Well, boys, now let's find the bugs," and the hunt for the phylloxera begins with fiendish, remorseless zest. Before starting the plant for regular commercial service, he began personally a series of practical experiments and tests to ascertain in advance what difficulties would actually arise in practice, so that he could provide remedies or preventives. He had several cots placed in the adjoining building, and he and a few of his most strenuous assistants worked day and night, leaving the work only for hurried meals and a snatch of sleep. These crucial tests, aiming virtually to break the plant down if possible within predetermined conditions, lasted several weeks, and while most valuable in the information they afforded, did not hinder anything, for meantime customers' premises throughout the district were being wired and supplied with lamps and meters.

On Monday, September 4, 1882, at 3 o'clock, P.M., Edison realized the consummation of his broad and original scheme. The Pearl Street station was officially started by admitting steam to the engine of one of the "Jumbos," current was generated, turned into the network of underground conductors, and was transformed into light by the incandescent lamps that had thus far been installed. This date and event may properly be regarded as historical, for they mark the practical beginning of a new art, which in the intervening years has grown prodigiously, and is still increasing by leaps and bounds.

Everything worked satisfactorily in the main. There were a few mechanical and engineering annoyances that might naturally be expected to arise in a new and unprecedented enterprise; but nothing of sufficient moment to interfere with the steady and continuous supply of current to customers at all hours of the day and night. Indeed, once started, this station was operated uninterruptedly for eight years with only insignificant stoppage.

It will have been noted by the reader that there was nothing to indicate rashness in starting up the station, as only one dynamo was put in operation. Within a short time, however, it was deemed desirable to supply the underground network with more current, as many additional customers had been connected and the demand for the new light was increasing very rapidly. Although Edison had successfully operated several dynamos in multiple arc two years before--i.e., all feeding current together into the same circuits--there was not, at this early period of experience, any absolute certainty as to what particular results might occur upon the throwing of the current from two or more such massive dynamos into a great distributing system. The sequel showed the value of Edison's cautious method in starting the station by operating only a single unit at first.

He decided that it would be wise to make the trial operation of a second "Jumbo" on a Sunday, when business houses were closed in the district, thus obviating any danger of false impressions in the public mind in the event of any extraordinary manifestations. The circumstances attending the adding of a second dynamo are thus humorously described by Edison: "My heart was in my mouth at first, but everything worked all right.... Then we started another engine and threw them in parallel. Of all the circuses since Adam was born, we had the worst then! One engine would stop, and the other would run up to about a thousand revolutions, and then they would see-saw. The trouble was with the governors. When the circus commenced, the gang that was standing around ran out precipitately, and I guess some of them kept running for a block or two. I grabbed the throttle of one engine, and E. H. Johnson, who was the only one present to keep his wits, caught hold of the other, and we shut them off." One of the "gang" that ran, but, in this case, only to the end of the room, afterward said: "At the time it was a terrifying experience, as I didn't know what was going to happen. The engines and dynamos made a horrible racket, from loud and deep groans to a hideous shriek, and the place seemed to be filled with sparks and flames of all colors. It was as if the gates of the infernal regions had been suddenly opened."

This trouble was at once attacked by Edison in his characteristic and strenuous way. The above experiment took place between three and four o'clock on a Sunday afternoon, and within a few hours he had gathered his superintendent and men of the machine- works and had them at work on a shafting device that he thought would remedy the trouble. He says: "Of course, I discovered that what had happened was that one set was running the other as a motor. I then put up a long shaft, connecting all the governors together, and thought this would certainly cure the trouble; but it didn't. The torsion of the shaft was so great that one governor still managed to get ahead of the others. Well, it was a serious state of things, and I worried over it a lot. Finally I went down to Goerck Street and got a piece of shafting and a tube in which it fitted. I twisted the shafting one way and the tube the other as far as I could, and pinned them together. In this way, by straining the whole outfit up to its elastic limit in opposite directions, the torsion was practically eliminated, and after that the governors ran together all right."

Edison realized, however, that in commercial practice this was only a temporary expedient, and that a satisfactory permanence of results could only be attained with more perfect engines that could be depended upon for close and simple regulation. The engines that were made part of the first three "Jum- bos" placed in the station were the very best that could be obtained at the time, and even then had been specially designed and built for the purpose. Once more quoting Edison on this subject: "About that time" (when he was trying to run several dynamos in parallel in the Pearl Street station) "I got hold of Gardiner C. Sims, and he undertook to build an engine to run at three hundred and fifty revolutions and give one hundred and seventy-five horse-power. He went back to Providence and set to work, and brought the engine back with him to the shop. It worked only a few minutes when it busted. That man sat around that shop and slept in it for three weeks, until he got his engine right and made it work the way he wanted it to. When he reached this period I gave orders for the engine-works to run night and day until we got enough engines, and when all was ready we started the engines. Then everything worked all right.... One of these engines that Sims built ran twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days in the year, for over a year before it stopped."[12]

[12] We quote the following interesting notes of Mr. Charles L. Clarke on the question of see-sawing, or "hunting," as it was afterward termed:

"In the Holborn Viaduct station the difficulty of `hunting' was not experienced. At the time the `Jumbos' were first operated in multiple arc, April 8, 1882, one machine was driven by a Porter-Allen engine, and the other by an Armington & Sims engine, and both machines were on a solid foundation. At the station at Milan, Italy, the first `Jumbos' operated in multiple arc were driven by Porter-Allen engines, and dash-pots were applied to the governors. These machines were also upon a solid foundation, and no trouble was experienced.

"At the Pearl Street station, however, the machines were sup- ported upon long iron floor-beams, and at the high speed of 350 revolutions per minute, considerable vertical vibration was given to the engines. And the writer is inclined to the opinion that this vibration, acting in the same direction as the action of gravitation, which was one of the two controlling forces in the operation of the Porter-Allen governor, was the primary cause of the `hunting.' In the Armington & Sims engine the controlling forces in the operation of the governor were the centrifugal force of revolving weights, and the opposing force of compressed springs, and neither the action of gravitation nor the vertical vibrations of the engine could have any sensible effect upon the governor,"


The Pearl Street station, as this first large plant was called, made rapid and continuous growth in its output of electric current. It started, as we have said, on September 4, 1882, supplying about four hundred lights to a comparatively small number of customers. Among those first supplied was the banking firm of Drexel, Morgan & Company, corner of Broad and Wall streets, at the outermost limits of the system. Before the end of December of the same year the light had so grown in favor that it was being supplied to over two hundred and forty customers whose buildings were wired for over five thousand lamps. By this time three more "Jumbos" had been added to the plant. The output from this time forward increased steadily up to the spring of 1884, when the demands of the station necessitated the installation of two additional "Jumbos" in the adjoining building, which, with the venous improvements that had been made in the mean time, gave the station a capacity of over eleven thousand lamps actually in service at any one time.

During the first three months of operating the Pearl Street station light was supplied to customers with- out charge. Edison had perfect confidence in his meters, and also in the ultimate judgment of the public as to the superiority of the incandescent electric light as against other illuminants. He realized, however, that in the beginning of the operation of an entirely novel plant there was ample opportunity for unexpected contingencies, although the greatest care had been exercised to make everything as perfect as possible. Mechanical defects or other unforeseen troubles in any part of the plant or underground system might arise and cause temporary stoppages of operation, thus giving grounds for uncertainty which would create a feeling of public distrust in the permanence of the supply of light.

As to the kind of mishap that was wont to occur, Edison tells the following story: "One afternoon, after our Pearl Street station started, a policeman rushed in and told us to send an electrician at once up to the corner of Ann and Nassau streets--some trouble. Another man and I went up. We found an immense crowd of men and boys there and in the adjoining streets--a perfect jam. There was a leak in one of our junction-boxes, and on account of the cellars extending under the street, the top soil had become insulated. Hence, by means of this leak powerful currents were passing through this thin layer of moist earth. When a horse went to pass over it he would get a very severe shock. When I arrived I saw coming along the street a ragman with a dilapidated old horse, and one of the boys told him to go over on the other side of the road--which was the place where the current leaked. When the rag- man heard this he took that side at once. The moment the horse struck the electrified soil he stood straight up in the air, and then reared again; and the crowd yelled, the policeman yelled; and the horse started to run away. This continued until the crowd got so serious that the policeman had to clear it out; and we were notified to cut the current off. We got a gang of men, cut the current off for several junction- boxes, and fixed the leak. One man who had seen it came to me next day and wanted me to put in apparatus for him at a place where they sold horses. He said he could make a fortune with it, because he could get old nags in there and make them act like thoroughbreds."

So well had the work been planned and executed, however, that nothing happened to hinder the continuous working of the station and the supply of light to customers. Hence it was decided in December, 1882, to begin charging a price for the service, and, accordingly, Edison electrolytic meters were installed on the premises of each customer then connected. The first bill for lighting, based upon the reading of one of these meters, amounted to $50.40, and was collected on January 18, 1883, from the Ansonia Brass and Copper Company, 17 and 19 Cliff Street. Generally speaking, customers found that their bills compared fairly with gas bills for corresponding months where the same amount of light was used, and they paid promptly and cheerfully, with emphatic encomiums of the new light. During November, 1883, a little over one year after the station was started, bills for lighting amounting to over $9000 were collected.

An interesting story of meter experience in the first few months of operation of the Pearl Street station is told by one of the "boys" who was then in position to know the facts; "Mr. J. P. Morgan, whose firm was one of the first customers, expressed to Mr. Edison some doubt as to the accuracy of the meter. The latter, firmly convinced of its correctness, suggested a strict test by having some cards printed and hung on each fixture at Mr. Morgan's place. On these cards was to be noted the number of lamps in the fixture, and the time they were turned on and off each day for a month. At the end of that time the lamp-hours were to be added together by one of the clerks and figured on a basis of a definite amount per lamp-hour, and compared with the bill that would be rendered by the station for the corresponding period. The results of the first month's test showed an apparent overcharge by the Edison company. Mr. Morgan was exultant, while Mr. Edison was still confident and suggested a continuation of the test. Another month's trial showed somewhat similar results. Mr. Edison was a little disturbed, but insisted that there was a mistake somewhere. He went down to Drexel, Morgan & Company's office to investigate, and, after looking around, asked when the office was cleaned out. He was told it was done at night by the janitor, who was sent for, and upon being interrogated as to what light he used, said that he turned on a central fixture containing about ten lights. It came out that he had made no record of the time these lights were in use. He was told to do so in future, and another month's test was made. On comparison with the company's bill, rendered on the meter-reading, the meter came within a few cents of the amount computed from the card records, and Mr. Morgan was completely satisfied of the accuracy of the meter."

It is a strange but not extraordinary commentary on the perversity of human nature and the lack of correct observation, to note that even after the Pearl Street station had been in actual operation twenty- four hours a day for nearly three months, there should still remain an attitude of "can't be done." That such a scepticism still obtained is evidenced by the public prints of the period. Edison's electric- light system and his broad claims were freely discussed and animadverted upon at the very time he was demonstrating their successful application. To show some of the feeling at the time, we reproduce the following letter, which appeared November 29, 1882:

"To the Editor of the Sun:

"SIR,--In reading the discussions relative to the Pearl Street station of the Edison light, I have noted that while it is claimed that there is scarcely any loss from leakage of current, nothing is said about the loss due to the resistance of the long circuits. I am informed that this is the secret of the failure to produce with the power in position a sufficient amount of current to run all the lamps that have been put up, and that while six, and even seven, lights to the horse-power may be produced from an isolated plant, the resistance of the long underground wires reduces this result in the above case to less than three lights to the horse-power, thus making the cost of production greatly in excess of gas. Can the Edison company explain this? "INVESTIGATOR."

This was one of the many anonymous letters that had been written to the newspapers on the subject, and the following reply by the Edison company was printed December 3, 1882:

"To the Editor of the Sun:

"SIR,--`Investigator' in Wednesday's Sun, says that the Edison company is troubled at its Pearl Street station with a `loss of current, due to the resistance of the long circuits'; also that, whereas Edison gets `six or even seven lights to the horse-power in isolated plants, the resistance of the long underground wires reduces that result in the Pearl Street station to less than three lights to the horse-power.' Both of these statements are false. As regards loss due to resistance, there is a well-known law for determining it, based on Ohm's law. By use of that law we knew in advance, that is to say, when the original plans for the station were drawn, just what this loss would be, precisely the same as a mechanical engineer when constructing a mill with long lines of shafting can forecast the loss of power due to friction. The practical result in the Pearl Street station has fully demonstrated the correctness of our estimate thus made in advance. As regards our getting only three lights per horse-power, our station has now been running three months, without stopping a moment, day or night, and we invariably get over six lamps per horse-power, or substantially the same as we do in our isolated plants. We are now lighting one hundred and ninety-three buildings, wired for forty-four hundred lamps, of which about two-thirds are in constant use, and we are adding additional houses and lamps daily. These figures can be verified at the office of the Board of Underwriters, where certificates with full details permitting the use of our light are filed by their own inspector. To light these lamps we run from one to three dynamos, according to the lamps in use at any given time, and we shall start additional dynamos as fast as we can connect more buildings. Neither as regards the loss due to resistance, nor as regards the number of lamps per horse-power, is there the slightest trouble or disappointment on the part of our company, and your correspondent is entirely in error is assuming that there is. Let me suggest that if `Investigator' really wishes to investigate, and is competent and willing to learn the exact facts, he can do so at this office, where there is no mystery of concealment, but, on the contrary, a strong desire to communicate facts to intelligent inquirers. Such a method of investigating must certainly be more satisfactory to one honestly seeking knowledge than that of first assuming an error as the basis of a question, and then demanding an explanation. "Yours very truly, "S. B. EATON, President."

Viewed from the standpoint of over twenty-seven years later, the wisdom and necessity of answering anonymous newspaper letters of this kind might be deemed questionable, but it must be remembered that, although the Pearl Street station was working successfully, and Edison's comprehensive plans were abundantly vindicated, the enterprise was absolutely new and only just stepping on the very threshold of commercial exploitation. To enter in and possess the land required the confidence of capital and the general public. Hence it was necessary to maintain a constant vigilance to defeat the insidious attacks of carping critics and others who would attempt to injure the Edison system by misleading statements.

It will be interesting to the modern electrician to note that when this pioneer station was started, and in fact for some little time afterward, there was not a single electrical instrument in the whole station-- not a voltmeter or an ammeter! Nor was there a central switchboard! Each dynamo had its own individual control switch. The feeder connections were all at the front of the building, and the general voltage control apparatus was on the floor above. An automatic pressure indicator had been devised and put in connection with the main circuits. It consisted, generally speaking, of an electromagnet with relays connecting with a red and a blue lamp. When the electrical pressure was normal, neither lamp was lighted; but if the electromotive force rose above a predetermined amount by one or two volts, the red lamp lighted up, and the attendant at the hand-wheel of the field regulator inserted resistance in the field circuit, whereas, if the blue lamp lighted, resistance was cut out until the pressure was raised to normal. Later on this primitive indicator was supplanted by the "Bradley Bridge," a crude form of the "Howell" pressure indicators, which were subsequently used for many years in the Edison stations.

Much could be added to make a complete pictorial description of the historic Pearl Street station, but it is not within the scope of this narrative to enter into diffuse technical details, interesting as they may be to many persons. We cannot close this chapter, however, without mention of the fate of the Pearl Street station, which continued in successful commercial operation until January 2, 1890, when it was partially destroyed by fire. All the "Jumbos" were ruined, excepting No. 9, which is still a venerated relic in the possession of the New York Edison Company. Luckily, the boilers were unharmed. Belt- driven generators and engines were speedily installed, and the station was again in operation in a few days. The uninjured "Jumbo," No. 9, again continued to perform its duty. But in the words of Mr. Charles L. Clarke, "the glory of the old Pearl Street station, unique in bearing the impress of Mr. Edison's personality, and, as it were, constructed with his own hands, disappeared in the flame and smoke of that Thursday morning fire."

The few days' interruption of the service was the only serious one that has taken place in the history of the New York Edison Company from September 4, 1882, to the present date. The Pearl Street station was operated for some time subsequent to the fire, but increasing demands in the mean time having led to the construction of other stations, the mains of the First District were soon afterward connected to another plant, the Pearl Street station was dismantled, and the building was sold in 1895.

The prophetic insight into the magnitude of central- station lighting that Edison had when he was still experimenting on the incandescent lamp over thirty years ago is a little less than astounding, when it is so amply verified in the operations of the New York Edison Company (the successor of the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York) and many others. At the end of 1909 the New York Edison Company alone was operating twenty-eight stations and substations, having a total capacity of 159,500 kilowatts. Connected with its lines were approximately 85,000 customers wired for 3,813,899 incandescent lamps and nearly 225,000 horse-power through industrial electric motors connected with the underground service. A large quantity of electrical energy is also supplied for heating and cooking, charging automobiles, chemical and plating work, and various other uses.


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Last updated by Jim Halpin on 9/17/99.