Boys' Life of Edison - W. H. Meadowcroft

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.