4 September 1882: Edison lights up Wall Street

Thomas Edison © Getty Images
Edison with one of his ‘Jumbo’ dynamos

In 1879, Thomas Edison created a commercially viable electric light bulb. But a light bulb is useless without the electricity to power it, so a few months later, Edison set up the Edison Electric Illuminating Company.

The following year in 1881, Edison demonstrated in London how surrounding buildings could be lit up from a single location. But it wasn’t until 1882, that the first purpose-built power station was constructed in New York City.

The Pearl Street station consisted of six 27-ton steam-driven dynamos, named Jumbo after a celebrity circus elephant. Each dynamo was capable of producing 100 kilowatts of electricity, enough to power around 1,200 lamps.

But the real challenge was in hiring the staff. Electrical engineers didn’t really exist back then, so Edison set up a training school, run by his lab technicians to train the first generation of sparkies.

On 4 September 1882, everything was in place. Edison strolled down to the offices of JP Morgan, located half a mile away on Wall Street. At 3pm sharp, an engineer at the station cut the circuit breaker, and Edison flipped the switch on Wall Street. The filament of a single light bulb warmed to a glow, and cast a dim light over the faces of the expectant bankers.

For the first time, it was now possible to switch from gas-powered lighting to electrical. By the end of the month, 59 customers were enjoying artificial light. By the end of the year, that number had grown to 513.

In what must be one of the first ever marketing events, Edison’s electric company held a procession for the 1884 presidential elections. Several hundred men marched down the road wearing helmets, each topped with a shining light bulb. A horse-drawn generator kept the lights on.

Then in 1890, the Pearl Street station burnt down, but not before it had become the model for the subsequent power stations that began to pop up around the city.

Today, the Edison Electric Illuminating Company survives in the form of Con Edison, which delivers electricity to three million customers in America.

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