From Pearl Street To Main Street

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“Remember,” Thomas Edison liked to say, “nothing that’s good works by itself, just to please you; you’ve got to make the damn thing work.” One hundred years ago this October, after trying to make the damn thing work for thirteen months, Edison invented an incandescent bulb that would burn for forty hours. It was a great moment; the news spread quickly; and most newspapers echoed the wonder of the New York Herald reporter who wrote of the “light-without-flame” giving “a bright, beautiful light, like the mellow sunset of an Italian autumn.”

But Edison knew his momentous discovery would remain simply a facile—albeit immensely impressive- trick unless he could produce the lamps cheaply, and somehow run power into people’s homes as efficiently as illuminating gas. There was no established technology for such a system; Edison would have to invent it all.

“Everything is so new that each step is in the dark,” he said. “I have to make the dynamos, the lamps, the conductors, and attend to a thousand details.…” As the central power station took shape in his mind, he began to manufacture the components: “If there are no factories to make my inventions, I will build the factories myself. Since capital is timid, I will raise and supply it.…The issue is factories or death.” He committed his considerable fortune to the project, and by the summer of 1880 he had a factory staffed by 133 men turning out a thousand lamps a day. They piled up on the shelves and stayed there, gathering dust; there was nobody to buy them yet.

In April of 1881, believing he was far enough along to test his system in the field, Edison secured a franchise from the city of New York permitting him to lay mains for the world’s first central electric station. He chose for his proving ground a crowded half square mile in lower Manhattan and bought two ramshackle buildings on Pearl Street to house the plant.

Despite the protests of city officials who worried about electricity seeping into the streets, Edison’s men sank fourteen miles of trenches for the wires. Of course Tammany Hall got into the act, and Department of Public Works “inspectors” showed up every Sunday to take their dole. Many of Edison’s workers were frightened of “the devils in the wires,” and the mains were still unfinished when winter brought work to a halt.

By July of 1882, however, everything was ready; four great boilers had arrived and had been hooked up to the six 240-horsepower Porter-Allen steam engines which would spin what Edison had christened his Jumbo dynamos. On July 6, he ran his first test. “At first everything worked all right…,” the inventor wrote. “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 a thousand revolutions.” The howling runaway generators sprayed sparks into the room. Most of his assistants fled, but Edison kept his head and shut down the plant.

He soon discovered the problem—it was with the governors that regulated the speed of the engines—but his confidence was shaken. Nevertheless, investors were pressing and rivals were sniping, and he felt he had to inaugurate the station soon.

Edison chose September 4 to turn on the lights. “All I can remember about the events of that day is that I had been up most of the night rehearsing my men and going over every part of the system.…If I ever did any thinking in my life it was on that day.” At three in the afternoon, Edison gave his chief electrician the word. The man pulled the switch, and Edison’s lamps flickered into life throughout the district, to burn faint but steady in the daylight.

“I have,” said the weary Edison, “accomplished all that I promised.”

In all, eight hundred bulbs glowed on that afternoon. Within fourteen months, Edison was supplying power to nearly thirteen thousand. By the end of the decade, the lights had gone on across the country.

The photographs on the following pages show cities and towns transformed by Thomas Alva Edison’s vision. Shining in the infancy of incandescent illumination, these are the lamps that lighted America’s way into the age of electricity.

— R.F.S.