Pearl Street Power Play

Thomas Edison built the first central power plant in the U.S., but bet on the wrong technology

By Allison Maier

A sketch of Thomas Edison’s Pearl Street Station from some time around 1882, the year that it opened for business. It was the first central power plant of its kind in the United States. (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

A sketch of Thomas Edison’s Pearl Street Station from some time around 1882, the year that it opened for business. It was the first central power plant of its kind in the United States. (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

It’s virtually impossible to recognize the significance of the mid-200s block of Pearl Street in lower Manhattan unless you know what you’re looking for. The only clue is a small bronze plaque displayed outside the lobby of 40 Fulton Street, a 30-year-old, 29-story commercial office building rising up from the southwest corner of property now occupied by public parking and discount clothing, but once home to the country’s first centralized power plant.

For 13 years in the late 1880s, 255 and 257 Pearl Street were the addresses of adjoining brick buildings that constituted Thomas Edison’s Pearl Street Station, which not only laid the groundwork for the city’s current electrical system, but changed nationwide expectations when it came to electricity—a trend that ultimately turned against Edison.

Edison’s quote that “genius is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration” may be an overused quips, but the history of the Pearl Street station is evidence that those words were a fairly accurate portrayal of Edison’s work philosophy — one that seemed to rely heavily on blunt determination.

In 1878, at the age of 31, the Ohio-born scientist came up with a multi-faceted plan that involved refining incandescent light technology, establishing an underground distribution system for electrical currents, creating a large form of “dynamo,” or generator, that would convert steam power into electrical energy, and designing the various safety mechanisms that would make all that possible. Then he set about achieving all of those goals over the following four years.

His improved incandescent electrical light came first, in 1879. He initially used carbon as the filament that would illuminate a bulb when heated. With the question of the lighting source out of the way, Edison focused his attention on the more challenging task: coming up with the mechanisms necessary to deliver electrical currents to homes and businesses. In 1880, he had the chance to experiment with various small-scale projects, creating lighting systems for the “Columbia” steamship and the area around his own laboratory in Menlo Park, N.J., and working on exhibitions in Paris and London. He would eventually create generators big enough for his undertaking in New York: machines that weighed 27 tons and could each produce about 100 kilowatts of power, which is enough for 1,200 lights.

Thomas Edison (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Thomas Edison (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

While Edison was making progress on technical issues, he ran into a business challenge. New York City would not give him permission to start digging up streets for wiring because the Edison Electric Light Co. was a New Jersey corporation. To deal with this, he simply moved branches of his business to different parts of New York, calling one “Edison Machine Works” and one the “Electric Tube Co.” Eventually, he would consolidate the three to form Edison General Electric. In 1892, this would merge with the Massachusetts-based Thomson-Houston Electric Co., creating the General Electric we know today.

Edison’s shift in operating locations was enough to satisfy the city, and in 1881, it granted him a license that allowed for the installation of wiring in a district covering one square mile. That summer, workers began installing thousands of feet of tubing and wiring, along with electrical junction boxes. Six “jumbo” generators were installed at the station. By late summer the following year, everything was in place. The project cost about $300,000, funded with the help of local businessmen who saw a promising investment opportunity.

Always something of a showman, Edison arranged for a carefully choreographed introduction of the new service. On Sept. 4, 1882, he synchronized his watch with that of the main electrician at the station and then walked a half-mile away, to the Wall Street offices of Drexel, Morgan & Co. (the precursor, of course, to J.P. Morgan & Co.). At exactly 3 p.m., the electrician flipped the main circuit breaker at the power plant, while Edison switched on the lights.

The plaque at 40 Fulton St., recognizing the former site of the Pearl Street Station. It was unveiled at a 35-year anniversary celebration in 1917, which Thomas Edison attended. (Photo by Allison Maier)

The plaque at 40 Fulton Street, recognizing the former site of the Pearl Street Station. It was unveiled at a 35-year anniversary celebration in 1917, which Thomas Edison attended. (Photo by Allison Maier)

Over the next year, the Pearl Street Station signed up 472 customers. The following year, it added an additional two generators to meet increasing demand. In the meantime, Edison had designed a meter that would keep track of individual energy consumption so the business could start sending out bills. However, the station didn’t make a profit until 1884, partly because the initial construction costs had been so high and partly because it was expensive to buy all the coal necessary to create enough steam for the generators.

In 1890, a fire caused by overloaded conductors destroyed all but one of the generators in the station. The surviving dynamo, “Generator No. 9,” happened to be the first ever used in the station—beginning that September day in 1882—and was later shuffled between various exhibitions before coming to rest at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., not far from where Edison grew up, in Port Huron. The fire was only the second time that service had been disrupted since the station opened, and, because of an auxiliary station Edison’s company had built several years before, power was restored within 12 hours.

Regardless, it was the beginning of the end for the Pearl Street Station, which was officially decommissioned in 1895. By this time, it had become apparent that Edison was losing the “Current Wars.” His system relied solely on direct current technology, meaning that electric charges could only run in one direction from their source. Alternating current, promoted by Edison’s rivals George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla (see “Nikola Tesla” by David Funkhouser), proved more feasible and less expensive. In that system, electrical charges can occasionally switch direction, meaning that a lot of charge can be sent out over a long distance, but only a safe amount of voltage will reach a customer.

Edison was blatant in his skepticism about the technology, making his point through various demonstrations, including public electrocution of animals. It might seem a trivial fight, considering he’d already made his mark on history.

“Edison did not invent the generator, the bulb or the AC system — in fact, practically the only aspect of modern electrical apparatus that can be traced back to him is the electricity meter,” the Economist wrote in a 1999 article. “But he it was who put the pieces of the puzzle together and made it work.”

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