Edison's Pearl Street Station Recognized With Milestone

IEEE honors the world's first central power station

27 July 2011

Thomas A. Edison launched the modern electric utility in 1882 with the opening of the Pearl Street Station in New York City, the first permanent central power station for electric lighting. With its reliable power generation and efficient and safe distribution, the station made incandescent lighting possible at a price that could compete with gas lighting.

To recognize the achievement, IEEE in May honored the Pearl Street Station with an IEEE Milestone in Electrical Engineering and Computing.

For much of the late 1800s, inventors worked on developing electric lighting for the home. Various forms of such illumination, like arc lighting, were developed, but the techniques were not well suited for indoor use. The breakthrough for home lighting came from a latecomer to the game: Edison. Working at his Menlo Park laboratory in New Jersey, Edison turned his attention in 1878 to practical incandescent lighting. One year later he developed his famous light bulb, and to commercialize it he established the Edison Electric Illuminating Co. of New York, now Consolidated Edison (Con Edison), which today provides electric service for most of New York City and Westchester County to the north.

The successful invention of the Edison light bulb called for a central station to supply power. Edison set out to construct a complete system that would generate power for both residential and commercial customers. He and his associates, building on the work of previous inventors, developed all the parts of the station, including a steam dynamo (or generator, as it’s called today), fuses, and voltage-regulating devices, to supply direct current.

Before building Pearl Street, Edison tested its parts in several small electrical systems. For example, in 1880 he installed electric lighting on the steamship Columbia as well as at his Menlo Park lab. In 1881 he demonstrated it was possible to supply electricity from a central station to illuminate nearby buildings, in London. Also that year he installed a low-voltage dc system at the New York City printing firm of Hinds, Ketcham & Co. However it, like his other stations, had a major limitation: It served just one customer.

Edison soon began planning a station that could serve many people. He wanted to put it in a densely populated area with a mix of commercial and residential customers. The area Edison chose in New York City was known as the First District, a rectangular .65 square-kilometer area bordered by Wall Street to the south. Not only was it the leading financial district of the United States, it also included the offices of The New York Times. Edison put his station in two buildings, at 255 and 257 Pearl Street.

He faced many obstacles—not the least of which was generating sufficient power. The dynamos of the time were simply not powerful enough. So he developed what he called the Jumbo dynamo, a 27-ton machine four times the size of other dynamos. A Jumbo produced 100 kilowatts—enough to power 1200 lights—and Edison installed six of them at the Pearl Street Station.

Another challenge was building the complex network of wires and underground conduits to deliver power to his customers. New York politicians were initially reluctant to allow Edison to dig up lower Manhattan for his wiring, but he eventually convinced them.

Figuring out how to track energy usage so he could bill his customers was yet another challenge. Instruments that detected and measured electric current had been around since the early 1800s, but none could record that flow over time. So Edison invented an electrochemical meter to do just that. One of his assistants, Francis Jehl, then tweaked it to the point where it was practical. Jehl was sent to Europe in 1882, and another assistant, George Grower, continued the work at Menlo Park. The meter made the Pearl Street Station practical.

The station began serving customers on 4 September 1882. Although it could supply power for up to 7200 lamps, Edison only had about 400 lamps to worry about on that first day. They were owned by about 85 customers, including The New York Times.

The station’s inauguration was reported in the Times the next day. Pearl Street became the model for electrification in cities and towns across the United States. But not even the editors of the newspaper understood the significance of the development; the story was buried inside the paper, in the Miscellaneous City News section.

Although it wasn’t an immediate financial success, the Pearl Street Station went on to serve 10 000 lamps and 513 customers within the year.

From its opening until 2 January 1890, the station delivered power reliably, with only one single three-hour interruption. A fire on that day severely damaged the station causing a longer outage, but power was restored 11 days later. The station had to be rebuilt afterward, but in 1895 it was retired and dismantled.

Edison went on to sell the two station buildings, and they were later demolished. One of the original Jumbo dynamos survived the fire and is on display at the Henry Ford Museum at Greenfield Village, in Dearborn, Mich.

A Milestone plaque was placed at the Con Edison headquarters building. It reads:

Thomas Alva Edison established the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York, now Consolidated Edison, to commercialize his 1879 incandescent lamp invention. On 4 September 1882, Edison’s direct current (dc) generating station at 257 Pearl Street, began supplying electricity to customers in the First District, a one-quarter square mile (0.65 square km) area. This installation was the forerunner of all central electric generating stations.

For more information on this and other IEEE Milestones, visit the IEEE Global History Network.

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