Wiring New York - Edison and the Electric Chair: A Story of Light and Death - Mark Essig

Edison and the Electric Chair: A Story of Light and Death - Mark Essig (2005)

Chapter 6. Wiring New York

IN FEBRUARY 1881 Edison moved his family to the Lennox Hotel in Manhattan and established a new headquarters at Sixty-five Fifth Avenue, just below Fourteenth Street. The brownstone held Edison's offices, but it also served as a showplace. A steam engine and dynamo were installed in the basement, and the windows of the building blazed with electric lamps. Edison threw open the house to visitors every night until midnight, and New York's elite flocked to see the light and meet the great man. They learned that, among Edison's other skills, he could hit a spittoon with pinpoint accuracy.1

Not long after he moved to New York, Edison tried to persuade some of the Edison Electric Light Company's major stockholders to invest in manufacturing companies that would build the components-generators, lamps, conductors—of the new central station. The stockholders, who had yet to see a return on the money they invested in Edison's lighting system two years before, had no interest in sinking more money into the project. They saw Edison Electric as a patent-holding corporation: It would avoid risky manufacturing enterprises and make its money simply by licensing Edison's patents to outside companies.


A dapper Edison with cigar.

In the absence of investors, Edison was forced to sell off much of his stock in Edison Electric and finance the manufacturing concerns himself, and he drafted his top Menlo Park lieutenants to run the new companies. John Kruesi, the master machinist, headed the Edison Electric Tube Company, established on Washington Street in Manhattan to build and lay the underground conductors (which were encased in iron pipes, or tubes). Kruesi's Menlo Park assistant, Charles Dean, ran the Edison Machine Works on Goerck Street on the Lower East Side, which built the new generators. Francis Upton was in charge of the Edison Lamp Company, the lone holdout in Menlo Park. Sigmund Bergmann, another old friend of Edison's, operated Bergmann & Company, manufacturer of the smaller elements of the Edison electrical distribution system, such as sockets, switches, fixtures, and meters.2

. . .

THE LAYING OF underground conductors—the feeders and mains—under the streets of New York proved to be a monstrously difficult challenge. It was also an avoidable one. Telegraph services and arc light companies ran their wires above ground, on poles or across rooftops. Had Edison followed suit, building his system would have been relatively easy. But back in 1878, when he made his first premature announcement of success in incandescent lighting, he said that the wires would be "laid in the ground in the same manner as gas pipes," and he never wavered from this plan. As an ex-telegraph man, Edison knew that overhead lines could be felled by storms or cut by unscrupulous competitors, causing disruptions in service and loss of faith in the new technology. Edison wanted his light to be as reliable as gas and thus felt that his current had to run underground, as gas did.3

The work started in the spring of 1881. The city allowed Edison to lay conductors only at night, to avoid disrupting traffic during the day, and it also required him to hire five city inspectors at five dollars a day. "We watched patiently for those inspectors to appear," Edison said. "The only appearance they made was to draw their pay Saturday afternoon." It was classic Tammany Hall graft, and Edison happily paid it to avoid interference.4

To lay the conductors underground, a gang of men first tore up the heavy granite cobblestones and stacked them on the curb. Another gang dug a trench a few feet deep and laid the mains. Each main consisted of two copper conductors wound with rope to separate them from each other and slipped inside an iron tube. Then the insulating compound—kept bubbling hot in cart-mounted cauldrons—was pumped into the tube. At every street corner was a "safety box" containing a lead fuse that melted if the circuit became overloaded. Problems—such as air bubbles in the insulation that allowed electricity to leak—cropped up constantly and had to be fixed on the fly. Once the mains were laid, another crew punched holes into cellar walls and connected street mains to the buildings.5

Edison hired fifteen "wire runners"—most of them telegraph linemen or burglar alarm installers—to wire, free of charge, the homes and offices of every customer in the district who agreed to try the electric light. He promised them that they would be enjoying the lights within a few months, by the summer of 1881. But in December—a year after he displayed his Menlo Park model system to New York's aldermen—only about a third of the tubes had been laid. Then frost locked up the earth, halting work until spring.6


Workers laying underground conductors for Edison's first lighting district in lower Manhattan.

OVER THE WINTER, the Machine Works became the inventor's favorite haunt, where he received visitors and worked on the generators late into the night—this despite the plant being located in a Manhattan slum so dangerous that Edison Electric sent its house detective to protect Edison whenever he ventured there. At two or three in the morning he would repair to a tiny all-night restaurant, where, he said, "for the clam chowder they used the same four clams during the whole season, and the average number of flies per pie was seven. This was by actual count."7

The Machine Works was busy building small dynamos to feed the explosive growth of a business that Edison earlier had resisted: "isolated lighting" plants, in which users bought generators and produced their own electricity, such as those that lit the offices at Sixty-five Fifth Avenue and the SS Columbia. By early 1881 Edison Electric had received more than 3,000 requests for such plants from around the globe, but Edison initially turned nearly all of them down for fear they would distract from central station work. He believed that isolated plants were too expensive to be anything more than a niche market, and that central stations were the only cost-effective way to bring his light to the world.8

As the Manhattan campaign encountered delay after delay, however, the isolated plant business grew too lucrative to ignore. Some of the first customers were lithography plants and cotton mills, which were too fire-prone for illuminating gas but needed good light to distinguish colors. Major cultural institutions—Boston's Bijou Theater, the Academy of Music in Chicago, and Milan's La Scala Opera House—also bought Edison plants, both to improve lighting and to cut the risk of fire from gas lighting. Among New York's upper crust, an electric lighting plant became the latest status symbol. Cornelius Vanderbilt installed lights in his Fifth Avenue mansion, but his wife insisted that it be stripped out after crossed wires scorched the wallpaper. J. P. Morgan's electric wiring sparked a fire that charred his library walls and carpets, but he remained enthusiastic about the lights.9

Rather than hampering central station work, the isolated lighting business proved to be a godsend, demonstrating the brilliance of the Edison system in the United States, Europe, and Latin America. It also created a market for the products of the Edison manufacturing companies, allowing them to remain solvent as they refined manufacturing techniques. This was especially true for Bergmann & Company, maker of the new lamp sockets, which were a big improvement over the crude wooden ones used in the Columbia installation. According to legend, Edison had a flash of inspiration while unscrewing the cap of a can of kerosene, and the screw socket was born. Like many of Edison's inventions, the design seemed so simple and obvious that people wondered why no one else had thought of it. The screw socket allowed even the inexperienced user to seat the bulb firmly in its base without jarring the fragile filament. Bergmann transformed Edison's original wooden screw socket into an elegant plaster of Paris design, and he worked similar magic on other electrical components. In addition to practical elements like switches and safety catches, Bergmann & Company designed and sold ground-glass shades, wall brackets, and the elaborate ceiling fixtures known as electroliers. Bergmann also made the electrical meter required for Edison's central station business. The meter, perfected by the late spring of 1882, worked on the principle of electroplating: Zinc plates were placed in a solution of zinc sulfate, and a tiny, fixed fraction of the electricity entering a home was shunted into the solution, causing the zinc from the solution to be deposited on the plates. Edison employees "read" the meters by weighing the plates.10

Although the Machine Works churned out smaller dynamos for the isolated lighting plants—ones that powered about sixty bulbs-most attention centered on machines big enough to power thousands of lamps from a central station. The first such generator was destined for use not in New York but at the Paris International Electrical Exposition. Edison and his staff completed it in September 1881, just hours before it was set to be shipped to Europe. They knocked the machine apart and packed it into 137 crates, and a convoy of horse-drawn trucks rattled to the wharves, its path cleared by an army of bribed police officers. The crates were loaded aboard a steamship that recently had delivered P. T Barnum's elephant, Jumbo, to New York. Newspaper writers linked the big beast to the big machine, which henceforth was known as Jumbo.

The Jumbo dynamo and the rest of the Edison system took the Paris exhibition by storm, earning top honors and showing the world that Edison was miles ahead of Hiram Maxim and other competitors. Early in 1882 a second Jumbo was shipped to England, where a model central station lit up hotels and offices in the heart of London, earning still more acclaim for Edison's light.11

FOR A TIME IT SEEMED that Edison might follow the Jumbo dynamo across the Atlantic. In January 1882 the family doctor warned Edison that his wife, Mary, "seems very nervous and despondent and thinks that she will never recover," and he advised Edison to take her to Europe. Mary suffered from a medley of ill-defined health problems, and marital neglect did not help the situation. Edison's first love was always his laboratory, with home serving primarily as a source of meals. The couple's daughter later said, "Seeing my Father on Sunday was not enough for Mother," but often she was lucky to see him even then. Her health declined further after the 1878 birth of her third child, Will—who weighed in at twelve pounds—but her husband remained as sparing with his sympathy as with his time. In one lab notebook Edison doodled his wife's name several times, transforming her maiden name—Stilwell—into "Stillsick." The doctor's warning early in 1882, however, had frightened Edison. A European vacation seemed excessive to the inventor, but he agreed to take Mary and the children to Florida for a couple of months, and her health improved.12

Edison and his family left Florida and moved back to Menlo Park just as the spring thaw was making it possible for his work crews to start laying feeders and mains again. Reports of the Edison system's triumphs in London appeared in the American press, calling further attention to the delays in New York. The London station buzzed to life so quickly because it was a temporary exhibition only, and Edison therefore allowed the conductors to be strung along a viaduct rather than laboriously buried underground. Most New Yorkers, though, knew only that the Londoners were enjoying the new technology while they were not. Residents of the lighting district grumbled that for more than a year the interiors of their homes had been festooned with useless electric wires, "objects of neither ornament nor utility," as the New York Times described them.13

EDISON WAS STILL CONFIDENT that the decision to place conductors underground was the right one, but his reasons had shifted. Originally motivated by a desire for reliability, he soon became convinced that safety was an equally important concern.

In Edison's propaganda battle with the gas lighting companies, the safety issue was an important weapon. Even gas companies had to admit that electric light was cleaner and steadier than gaslight, so they played up electricity's ability to start fires, such as those at the Vanderbilt and Morgan mansions. In response, the Edison Electric Light Company's Bulletin, distributed to stockholders and the press, highlighted the dangers of gas: house fires, explosions at gas plants, and asphyxiation by leaking gas pipes.14

Before long, many of the warnings issued by Edison Electric referred not to illuminating gas but to electric arc lighting. While the Edison system used only about ioo volts, arc lights required as much as ten times that, and this potent current had begun to claim lives. A carpenter died in Lyon, France, in 1879, a n d the following year two more men died from arc light shocks—one aboard a Russian yacht and another in Birmingham, England. In 1882, a year after Lemuel Smith in Buffalo became the first American to be killed by a dynamo, there were electrical deaths in a Pittsburgh iron mill and a Cleveland steel plant, and a lineman for an arc lighting company died dramatically atop a pole on Canal Street in Manhattan.15

When newspapers began to warn of the dangers of electric lighting, the Edison company insisted that its own system was harmless. Because its wires were underground, there was no danger that they would cross with overhead arc light cables and allow high voltages into homes and offices. Edward Johnson, the old friend of Edison's who served as vice president of Edison Electric, took the lead in promoting the safety of the company's current. Showing off for reporters one day, Johnson allowed the Edison current to flow through his body and reported that "there was no appreciable sensation whatever." Johnson was being less than honest—a shock of 100 volts would have been not only palpable but painful—but he was certainly right to point out that the Edison current was unlikely to kill.16


The exterior of the Pearl Street station. Coal is being dumped from a cart through a sidewalk vault into the cellar.

Preparations in New York reached a fever pitch in the spring and summer of 1882, particularly at the four-story building on Pearl Street that would serve as the hub of the lighting system. Butting against the Third Avenue elevated train line and within smelling distance of the Fulton Fish Market, the site was chosen because it was cheap and near the center of the lighting district. One side of the Pearl Street building was set aside for offices and sleeping quarters for Edison and the station attendants, the other for the power plant itself. The two floors that would hold the heavy machinery were reinforced with wrought iron. By April the boilers were installed, and the steam engines had been received from the manufacturers. As the Jumbo dynamos neared completion, the Machine Works was so busy that it was bursting at the seams. Edison paid off the local Tammany boss to let him work on the sidewalk, and soon he ran power belts through the shop windows and set up engine lathes on the streets.17

The laying of feeders and mains was proceeding at a rate of about 1,000 feet a night. Edison spent as many as four nights a week down in the ditches, solving technical problems with the conductors and lending another strong back to the cause. By July the entire network had been laid—more than fourteen miles in all.18

One morning in July black coal smoke streamed from the two steel stacks that towered eighty feet above the Pearl Street building—evidence that the system was being tested for the first time. The station was arranged vertically, with every bit of space, from basement to top story, in use. The process started on the street. A workman heaved open the metal door of the sidewalk vault, and a teamster tipped his truck and sent a load of coal rumbling down into the cellar. Screw conveyers, powered by a twenty-horsepower engine, carried the coal up one story to the boiler room (and more screw conveyers delivered the ashes to barrels back in the basement). Workmen shoveled the coal into stoke holes of the four Babcock and Wilcox boilers, which fed steam to the six steam engines in the floor above. The shaft of each engine was coupled directly to an adjacent Jumbo dynamo, each of which stood six feet tall and produced enough current for 1,200 lamps. Electricity from the dynamos fed into heavy copper conductors along the walls, which terminated in a switch that linked them to the feeders that took current into the streets. For testing purposes, the current could be diverted one floor up, to a bank of 1,000 lights mounted on the wall.19

After conducting test lightings of a few selected buildings, Edison believed he was finally ready for a public unveiling, and he set the date for September 4, 1882—almost exactly four years after he had first started to work on the incandescent lamp. When Edison arrived at the Pearl Street station at about nine that morning, he was wearing a frock coat and white, high-crowned derby, but he immediately threw off his coat and collar and plunged into a final check of his sys-tern. In midafternoon he put his coat and collar back on and synchronized watches with the station engineers. Trailed by a gaggle of reporters, he set out for the Wall Street offices of his bankers, Drexel, Morgan & Company.


Jumbo dynamos at the Pearl Street station.

For the moment, the lighting system served only fifty-nine customers with 1,284 lamps, but those few customers were an influential group that included not only Drexel, Morgan but also the buildings of several newspapers. Edison arrived at J. P. Morgan's offices and greeted the board of directors of the Edison Electric Light Company, who had gathered to witness the culmination of the work they had financed. The men chatted nervously as they waited for three o'clock sharp, the hour appointed for the test.

Back at Pearl Street, the head electrician closed the switch and sent current flowing through the streets. At the Morgan office, Edison, pocket watch in hand, advanced toward the switch controlling a large electrolier and turned it.20

The lamps glowed, but they seemed a bit dim—it was midafternoon on a late-summer day, and electric light could not outshine the sun. As darkness fell, the virtues of the lamp grew more apparent. The throng of Brooklynites heading down Fulton Street to the ferry were stopped in their tracks by the new lights shining in the windows of the shops. Instead of tongues of flame, they saw slender threads glowing within glass globes. According to the Herald,"From the outer darkness these points of light looked like drops of flame suspended from the jets and ready to fall at every moment."21

Edison told the gathered reporters, "I have accomplished all that I promised."22