Chapters 15 and 16

Beginning the Electric Light Business

The close of the last two chapters found us attending the birth of an art that was then absolutely and entirely new—the art of electric lighting by incandescent lamps. It will now be interesting to take a brief glance at the way in which it was introduced to the world.

Edison invented not only a lamp and a dynamo, but a complete system of distributing electric light, heat, and power from central stations. This included a properly devised network of conductors fed with electricity from several directions and capable of being tapped to supply current to each building; a lamp that would be cheap, lasting, take little current, be easy to handle, and each to be independent of every other lamp; means for measuring electricity by meter; means for regulating the current so that every lamp, whether near to or far away from the station, would give an equal light; the designing of new and efficient dynamos, with means for connecting and disconnecting and for regulating and equalizing their loads; the providing of devices that would prevent fires from excessive current, and the providing of switches, lamp-holders, fixtures, and the like.

This was a large program to fill, for it was all new, and there was nothing in the world from which to draw ideas, but Edison carried out his scheme in full,, and much more besides. By the end of 188o he was ready to launch his electric light system for commercial use, and the Edison Electric Light Company, that had been organized for the purpose, rented a mansion at No. 65 Fifth Avenue, New York, to be used for offices. Edison now moved some of his Menlo Park staff into that city to pursue the work.

Right at the very beginning a most serious difficulty was met with. None of the appliances necessary for use in the lighting system could be purchased anywhere in the world.

They were all new and novel—dynamos, switchboards, regulators, pressure and current indicators, incandescent lamps, sockets, small switches, meters, fixtures, underground conductors, junction boxes, service boxes, man-hole boxes, connectors, and even specially made wire. Not one of these things was in existence; and no outsider knew enough about such devices to make them on order, except the wire.

Edison himself solved the difficulty by raising some money and establishing several manufacturing shops in which these articles could be made. The first of all was a small factory at Menlo Park to make the lamps, Mr. Upton taking charge of that branch.

For making the dynamos he secured a large works on Goerck Street, New York, and gave its management to Mr. Batchelor. For the underground conductors and their parts a building on Washington Street was rented and the work done under the superintendence of Mr. Kruesi. In still another factory building there was made the smaller appliances, such as sockets, switches, fixtures, meters, safety fuses and other details. This latter plant was at first owned by Mr. Sigmund Bergmann, who had worked with Edison on telephones and phonographs, but later Mr. Edison and E. H. Johnson became partners.

Still another difficulty presented itself. There were no men who knew how to do wiring for electric lights, except those who had been with Edison at Menlo Park. This problem was solved by opening a night-school at No. 65 Fifth Avenue, in which a large number of men were educated and trained for the work by Edison’s associates. Many of these men have since become very prominent in electrical circles.

Thus, in planning these matters, and in guiding the operations in these four shops in New York, and with all the work he was doing on new experiments and inventions there and at Menlo Park, and in making preparations for the first central station in New York City, Edison was a prodigiously busy man. He worked incessantly, and it is safe to say that he did not average more than four hours’ sleep a day.

He was the center and the guiding spirit of those intensely busy times. The aid of his faithful associates was invaluable in the building up of the business, but he was the great central storehouse of ideas, and it is owing to his undaunted courage, energy, perseverance, knowledge and foresight, that the foundations of so great an art have been so well laid.

As has been well said by Major S. B. Eaton, who was president and general manager of the Edison Electric Light Company in its earliest years: “In looking back on those days and scrutinizing them through the years, I am impressed by the greatness, the solitary greatness, I may say, of Mr. Edison. We all felt then that we were of importance, and that our contribution of effort and zeal was vital. I can see now, however, that the best of us was nothing but the fly on the wheel. Suppose anything had happened to Edison? All would have been chaos and ruin. To him, therefore, be the glory, if not the profit.”

Early in 1881 comparatively few people had seen the incandescent light. In order to make the public familiar with it, the Edison company equipped its office building with fixtures and lamps, the latter being lighted by current from a dynamo in the cellar. In the evenings the house was thrown open to visitors until ten or eleven o’clock. Thousands of people flocked to see the new light, which in those days was regarded as wonderful and mysterious, for while the lamps gave a soft, steady illumination, there was no open flame, practically no heat, no danger of fire, and no vitiation of air. For the most part of four years the writer spent his evenings receiving these visitors if no important business was in progress at the moment.

Mr. Edison and his shops had scarcely time to get well on their feet before a rush of business set in. How this business rapidly developed and grew until it became of very great magnitude is a matter of history, which we shall not attempt to relate here.

Some idea of this wonderful development, as it has gone on through the years that have passed since 1880, may be formed when it is stated that at this time (1911) there are about forty-five millions of incandescent lamps in daily use in the United States alone. Every one of these lamps and the fundamental principles upon which they are operated rest upon the foundations which Edison laid so well more than thirty years ago.

One of Mr. Edison’s interesting stories of the early days relates to the making of the lamps. He says:

“When we first started the electric light we had to have a factory for manufacturing lamps. As the Edison light company did not seem disposed to go into manufacturing, we started a small lamp factory at Menlo Park with what money I could raise from my other inventions and royalties and some assistance. The lamps at that time were costing about one dollar and twenty-five cents each to make, so I said to the company: ‘If you will give me a contract during the life of the patents I will make all the lamps required by the company and deliver them for forty cents.’ The company jumped at the chance of this offer, and a contract was drawn up. We then bought at a receiver’s sale at Harrison, New Jersey, a very large brick factory building which had been used as an oil-cloth works. We got it at a great bargain, and only paid a small sum down, and the balance on mortgage. We moved the lamp works from Menlo Park to Harrison. The first year the lamps cost us about one dollar and ten cents each. We sold them for forty cents; but there were only about twenty or thirty thousand of them. The next year they cost us about seventy cents, and we sold them for forty. There were a good many, and we lost more money the second year than the first. The third year I succeeded in getting up machinery and in changing the processes, until it got down so that they cost somewhere around fifty cents. I still sold them for forty cents, and lost more money that year than any other, because the sales were increasing rapidly. The fourth year I got it down to thirty-seven cents, and I made all the money in one year that I had lost previously. I finally got it down to twenty-two cents, and sold them for forty cents; and they were made by the million. Whereupon the wall Street people thought it was a very lucrative business, so they concluded they would like to have it, and bought us out.

“When we formed the works at Harrison we divided the interests into one hundred shares or parts at one hundred dollars par. One of the boys was hard up after a time, and sold two shares to Bob Cutting. Up to that time we had never paid anything, but we got around to the point where the board declared a dividend every Saturday night. We had never declared a dividend when Cutting bought his shares, and after getting his dividends for three weeks in succession he called up on the telephone and wanted to know what kind of a concern this was that paid a weekly dividend. The works sold for $1,085,000.”

We have been obliged to confine ourselves to a very brief and general description of the beginnings of the art of electric lighting, but this chapter would not be complete without reference to Edison’s design and construction of the greatest dynamo that had ever been made up to that time.

The earliest dynamos he made would furnish current only for sixty lamps of sixteen candle-power each. These machines were belted up to an engine or countershaft. He realized that much larger dynamos would be needed for central stations, and in 1880 constructed one in Menlo Park, but it was not entirely successful.

In the spring of 1881, however, he designed a still larger one, to be connected direct to its own engine and operated without belting. Its capacity was to be twelve hundred lamps, instead of sixty.

At that time such a project was not dreamed of outside the Edison laboratory, and once more he was the subject of much ridicule and criticism by those who were considered as experts. They said the thing was impossible and absolutely impracticable.

Such opinions, however, have never caused a moment’s hesitation to Edison when he has made up his mind that a thing can be done. He calmly went ahead with his plans, and I although he found many difficulties, he overcame them all. He worked the shops night and day, until he had built this great machine and operated it successfully.

The dynamo was finished in the summer of 1881. At that time there was in, progress an international Electrical Exposition in Paris, at which Edison was exhibiting his system of electric lighting. He had promised to send this great dynamo over to Paris.

When the dynamo was finished and tested there were only four hours to take it and the engine apart and get all the parts on board the steamer. Edison had foreseen all this, and had arranged to have sixty men get to work all at once to take it apart. Each man had written instructions just what to do, and when the machine was stopped every man did his own particular work and the job was quickly accomplished

Arrangements had been made with the police for rapid passage through the streets from the shops to the steamship. The trucks made quick time of it, being preceded by a wagon with a clanging bell. Street traffic was held up for them, just as it is for engines and hose-carts going to a fire. The dynamo and engine got safely down to the dock without delay and were loaded on the steamer an hour before she sailed.

This dynamo and engine weighed twenty-seven tons, and was then, and for a long time after, the eighth wonder of the scientific world. Its arrival and installation in Paris were eagerly watched by the most famous scientists and electricians in Europe

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The First Edison Central Station

From the beginning of his experiments on , the electric light Edison had one idea ever in mind, and that was to develop a system of lighting cities from central stations. His plan was to supply electric light and power in much the same way that gas is furnished.

He never forsook this idea for a moment. Indeed, it formed the basis of all his plans, although the scientific experts of the time predicted utter failure. While the experiments were going on at Menlo Park he had Mr. Upton and others at work making calculations and plans for city systems.

Soon after he had invented the incandescent lamp he began to take definite steps toward preparing for .the first central station in the city ‘of New York. After some consideration, he decided upon the district included between Wall, Nassau, Spruce and Ferry streets, Peck Slip and the East River, covering nearly a square mile in extent.

He sent into this district a number of men, who visited every building, counted every gas-jet and found out how many hours per day or night they were burned.

These men also ascertained the number of business houses using power and how much they consumed. All this information was marked in colored inks on large maps, so that Edison could study the question with all the details before him.

All this work had taken several months, but, with this information to guide him, the main conductors to be laid in the streets of this district were figured, block by block, and the results were marked upon the maps. It was found, however, that the quantity of copper required for these conductors would be exceedingly large and costly, and, if ever, Edison was somewhat dismayed. ‘

This difficulty only spurred him on to still greater effort. Before long he solved the problem by inventing the “feeder and main” system, for which he signed an application for patent on August 4, 1880.

By this invention he saved seven-eighths of the amount of copper previously required. So the main conductors were figured again, at only one-eighth the size they were before, and the results were marked upon enormous new maps which were now prepared for the actual installation.

It should be remembered that from the very start Edison had determined that his conductors should be placed underground. He knew that this was the only method for permanent and satisfactory service to the public.

Our young readers can scarcely imagine the condition of New York streets at that time. They were filled with lines of ugly wooden poles carrying great masses of telegraph, telephone, stock ticker, burglar alarm and other wires, in all conditions of sag and decay. The introduction of the arc-lamp added another series of wires which with their high potentials carried a menace to life. Edison was the first to put conductors underground, and the wisdom of so doing became so clear that a few years later laws were made compelling others to do likewise.

But to return to our story. Just before Christmas in 1880 the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York was organized, and a license was issued to it for the use of the Edison patents on Manhattan Island.

The work for the new station now commenced in real earnest. A double building at 255 and 257 Pearl Street was purchased, and the inside of one half was taken out and a strong steel structure was erected inside the walls.

Work on the maps and plans for the under-ground network of conductors was continued at Menlo Park. Mr. Edison started his factories for making dynamos, lamps, under-ground conductors, sockets, switches, meters, and other details. Thus, the wheels of industry were humming merrily in preparation for the installation of the system. Every detail received Edison’s personal care and consideration. He had plenty of competent men, but he deemed nothing too small or insignificant for his attention in this important undertaking.

In the fall of 1881 the laying of the under-ground conductors was begun and pushed forward with frantic energy. Here again Edison left nothing to chance. Although he had a thousand things to occupy his mind he also superintended this work. He did not stand around and give orders, but worked with the men in the trenches day and night helping to lay tubes, filling up junction boxes, and taking part in all the infinite detail.

He would work till 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 iron tubes, lie down and sleep a few hours, rising to resume work with the first gang.

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 one hundred dollars to thirty-five hundred 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.”

The laying of the underground conductors was interrupted by frost in the winter of 1881, but in the following spring the work was renewed with great energy until there had been laid over eighty thousand feet. In the mean time the buildings of the district were being wired for lamps, and the machine-works had been busy on the building of three of the “Jumbo” dynamos for the station. These were larger than the great dynamo that had been sent to Paris.

These three dynamos were installed in the station, and the other parts of the system were completed. A bank of one thousand lamps was placed in one of the buildings; and in the summer a whole month was spent in making tests of the working of the system, using this bank of lamps instead of sending current out to customers’ premises. Edison and his assistants made the station their home during this busy month. They even slept there on cots that he had sent to the station for this purpose.

The system tested out satisfactorily, and finally, on September 4, 1882, at three o’clock in the afternoon, the station was started by sending out current from one of the big dynamos through the conductors laid in the streets, and electric light was supplied for the first time to a number of customers in the district.

The station was now started and everything went well. New customers were added daily, and very soon it became necessary to supply more current. This called for the operation of two dynamos at one time. As this involved new problems, Edison chose a Sunday to try it, when business places would be closed. We will let him tell the story. He says:

“My heart was in my mouth at first, but everything worked all right. . . . Then we started another engine and threw the dynamos 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.”

Edison attacked this problem in his strenuous way. Although it was Sunday, he sent out and gathered his men and opened the machine-works to make new appliances to overcome this trouble.

Space will not permit of telling all the methods he applied until the difficulty was entirely conquered. It was only a short time, however, before he was able to operate two or any number of dynamos all together as one, in parallel, without the least trouble.

This early station grew and prospered, and continued in successful operation for more than seven years, until January 2, 1890, when it was partially destroyed by fire. This occurrence caused a short interruption of service, but in a few days current was again supplied to customers as before, and the service has never since ceased.

Increasing demands for service soon afterward led to the construction of other stations on Manhattan Island, until at the present time (1911) the New York Edison Company (the successor to the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York) is operating thirty-three stations and substations. These supply current for about 108,500 customers, wired for 4, 600, 000 incandescent lamps and for about 287,800 horse-power in electric motors.

The early success of the first central station in New York led to the formation of new companies in other cities, and the installation of many similar plants. The business has grown by leaps and bounds, until at the present time there are many thousands of central stations spread all over the United States, furnishing electric light, heat, and power, chiefly by use of the principles elaborated so many years ago by Mr. Edison.

We ought to mention that this tremendous growth has also been largely due to another invention made by him in 1882, called the “three-wire system.” Its value consists in the fact that it allowed a further saving of sixty-two and one-half percent of copper required for conductors. This invention is in universal use all over the world.

It may be mentioned here that at the opening ceremonies of the Electrical Exposition in New York, on October 11, 1911, the leading producers and consumers of copper presented Mr. Edison with an inscribed cubic foot of that metal in recognition of the stimulus of his inventions to the industry. The inscription shows that the yearly output of copper was 377,644,000 pounds at the time of Edison’s first invention in 1868, and in October, 1911, the yearly output had increased to 1,910,608,000 pounds.