Professor’s History Lesson: The First Electrical Plant

The Brilliant Blog’s new series, The Professor's History Lessons, shares amazing moments in the history of energy, electricity and sustainable development. We hope these brief looks back in history will teach you something new and give you a greater appreciation for the energy used in your daily lives.

This week in history marks when one of world’s foremost inventors, Thomas Edison, illuminated the world with the first electrical plant. On Sept. 4, 1882, Edison and team flipped the switch on his power plant at 257 Pearl Street. While the generator only supplied electricity to customers within a mile or so (reports vary on the distance), it was an achievement that paved the way for the multitude of ways we take advantage of electricity today.

The end of the 19th century was marked by engineers and inventors looking for advanced ways to light up their communities: Edison shared his incandescent light bulb with the world in 1879; and Wabash, Indiana became the world’s first electrically lighted city in March 1880. And like other inventors and businessmen at the time, Edison was looking for ways to both create and capitalize on new lighting techniques. So Edison and his colleagues created an incandescent lighting system to get his new light bulbs to flicker and flash. Once that was done, they needed to prove the value of electricity on a much larger scale by delivering it to the masses.

Edison and team set to work to build the “first permanent central power station for supplying incandescent lighting,” says ETHW, which chronicles the history of technology. To tackle the project, he created the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York, which preceded the Consolidated Edison Company of New York (Con Edison) in December 1880. The guinea pig homes and businesses for the electrical plant were located in Manhattan’s First District, near the southern tip on the island, which was home to some high-profile businesses at the time, including major banks and the New York Times.

In 1882 the plant was finished, and the then 35-year-old took a short, half-a-mile walk to the Wall Street office of one of his investor’s, J. Pierpont Morgan, Con Edison says. At 3:00 p.m., the chief electrician at the plant, John W. Lieb, closed the circuit breaker at the plant, allowing Edison to flip the light switch at Morgan’s office. In its first day of operation, roughly 85 customers were seeing things in a new light.

Although, this historic achievement probably didn’t get the front-page wonder it deserved. One of Edison’s first customers, The New York Times ran a story on it the following day under the “Miscellaneous City News” section.

The New York Times reported:

“It was a light that a man could sit down under and write for hours without the consciousness of having any artificial light about him. There was a very slight amount of heat from each lamp, but not nearly as much as from a gas-burner – one-fifteenth as much as from gas, the inventor says. The light was soft, mellow and grateful to the eye, and it seemed almost like writing by daylight to have a light without a particle of flicker and with scarcely any heat to make the head ache.”

Word on this cleaner form of energy eventually did spread. Within a year Edison served more than 500 customers. And as they say, the rest is history.