Boys' Life of Edison - W. H. Meadowcroft

The First Edison Central Station

From the beginning of his experiments on , the electric light Edison had one idea ever in mind, and that was to develop a system of lighting cities from central stations. His plan was to supply electric light and power in much the same way that gas is furnished.

He never forsook this idea for a moment. Indeed, it formed the basis of all his plans, although the scientific experts of the time predicted utter failure. While the experiments were going on at Menlo Park he had Mr. Upton and others at work making calculations and plans for city systems.

Soon after he had invented the incandescent lamp he began to take definite steps toward preparing for .the first central station in the city 'of New York. After some consideration, he decided upon the district included between Wall, Nassau, Spruce and Ferry streets, Peck Slip and the East River, covering nearly a square mile in extent.

He sent into this district a number of men, who visited every building, counted every gas-jet and found out how many hours per day or night they were burned.

These men also ascertained the number of business houses using power and how much they consumed. All this information was marked in colored inks on large maps, so that Edison could study the question with all the details before him.

All this work had taken several months, but, with this information to guide him, the main conductors to be laid in the streets of this district were figured, block by block, and the results were marked upon the maps. It was found, however, that the quantity of copper required for these conductors would be exceedingly large and costly, and, if ever, Edison was somewhat dismayed. '

This difficulty only spurred him on to still greater effort. Before long he solved the problem by inventing the "feeder and main" system, for which he signed an application for patent on August 4, 1880.

By this invention he saved seven-eighths of the amount of copper previously required. So the main conductors were figured again, at only one-eighth the size they were before, and the results were marked upon enormous new maps which were now prepared for the actual installation.

It should be remembered that from the very start Edison had determined that his conductors should be placed underground. He knew that this was the only method for permanent and satisfactory service to the public.

Our young readers can scarcely imagine the condition of New York streets at that time. They were filled with lines of ugly wooden poles carrying great masses of telegraph, telephone, stock ticker, burglar alarm and other wires, in all conditions of sag and decay. The introduction of the arc-lamp added another series of wires which with their high potentials carried a menace to life. Edison was the first to put conductors underground, and the wisdom of so doing became so clear that a few years later laws were made compelling others to do likewise.

But to return to our story. Just before Christmas in 1880 the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York was organized, and a license was issued to it for the use of the Edison patents on Manhattan Island.

The work for the new station now commenced in real earnest. A double building at 255 and 257 Pearl Street was purchased, and the inside of one half was taken out and a strong steel structure was erected inside the walls.

Work on the maps and plans for the under-ground network of conductors was continued at Menlo Park. Mr. Edison started his factories for making dynamos, lamps, under-ground conductors, sockets, switches, meters, and other details. Thus, the wheels of industry were humming merrily in preparation for the installation of the system. Every detail received Edison's personal care and consideration. He had plenty of competent men, but he deemed nothing too small or insignificant for his attention in this important undertaking.

In the fall of 1881 the laying of the under-ground conductors was begun and pushed forward with frantic energy. Here again Edison left nothing to chance. Although he had a thousand things to occupy his mind he also superintended this work. He did not stand around and give orders, but worked with the men in the trenches day and night helping to lay tubes, filling up junction boxes, and taking part in all the infinite detail.

He would work till he felt the need of a little rest. Then he would go off to the station building in Pearl Street, throw an overcoat on a pile of iron tubes, lie down and sleep a few hours, rising to resume work with the first gang.

It is worth pausing just a moment to glance at this man taking a fitful rest on a pile of iron pipe in a dingy building. His name is on the tip of the world's tongue. Distinguished scientists from every part of Europe seek him eagerly. He has just been decorated and awarded high honors by the French government. He is the inventor of wonderful new apparatus and the exploiter of novel and successful arts. The magic of his achievements and the rumors of what is being done have caused a wild drop in gas securities and a sensational rise in his own electric-light stock from one hundred dollars to thirty-five hundred a share. Yet these things do not at all affect his slumber or his democratic simplicity, for in that, as in everything else, he is attending strictly to business, "doing the thing that is next to him."

The laying of the underground conductors was interrupted by frost in the winter of 1881, but in the following spring the work was renewed with great energy until there had been laid over eighty thousand feet. In the mean time the buildings of the district were being wired for lamps, and the machine-works had been busy on the building of three of the "Jumbo" dynamos for the station. These were larger than the great dynamo that had been sent to Paris.

These three dynamos were installed in the station, and the other parts of the system were completed. A bank of one thousand lamps was placed in one of the buildings; and in the summer a whole month was spent in making tests of the working of the system, using this bank of lamps instead of sending current out to customers' premises. Edison and his assistants made the station their home during this busy month. They even slept there on cots that he had sent to the station for this purpose.

The system tested out satisfactorily, and finally, on September 4, 1882, at three o'clock in the afternoon, the station was started by sending out current from one of the big dynamos through the conductors laid in the streets, and electric light was supplied for the first time to a number of customers in the district.

The station was now started and everything went well. New customers were added daily, and very soon it became necessary to supply more current. This called for the operation of two dynamos at one time. As this involved new problems, Edison chose a Sunday to try it, when business places would be closed. We will let him tell the story. He says:

"My heart was in my mouth at first, but everything worked all right. . . . Then we started another engine and threw the dynamos in parallel. Of all the circuses since Adam was born, we had the worst then! One engine would stop, and the other would run up to about a thousand revolutions, and then they would see-saw. The trouble was with the governors. When the circus commenced the gang that was standing around ran out precipitately, and I guess some of them kept running for a block or two. I grabbed the throttle of one engine, and E. H. Johnson, who was the only one present to keep his wits, caught hold of the other, and we shut them off."

One of the gang that ran, but, in this case, only to the end of the room, afterward said: "At the time it was a terrifying experience, as I didn't know what was going to happen. The engines and dynamos made a horrible racket, from loud and deep groans to a hideous shriek, and the place seemed to be filled with sparks and flames of all colors. It was as if the gates of the infernal regions had been suddenly opened."

Edison attacked this problem in his strenuous way. Although it was Sunday, he sent out and gathered his men and opened the machine-works to make new appliances to overcome this trouble.

Space will not permit of telling all the methods he applied until the difficulty was entirely conquered. It was only a short time, however, before he was able to operate two or any number of dynamos all together as one, in parallel, without the least trouble.

This early station grew and prospered, and continued in successful operation for more than seven years, until January 2, 1890, when it was partially destroyed by fire. This occurrence caused a short interruption of service, but in a few days current was again supplied to customers as before, and the service has never since ceased.

Increasing demands for service soon afterward led to the construction of other stations on Manhattan Island, until at the present time (1911) the New York Edison Company (the successor to the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York) is operating thirty-three stations and substations. These supply current for about 108,500 customers, wired for 4, 600, 000 incandescent lamps and for about 287,800 horse-power in electric motors.

The early success of the first central station in New York led to the formation of new companies in other cities, and the installation of many similar plants. The business has grown by leaps and bounds, until at the present time there are many thousands of central stations spread all over the United States, furnishing electric light, heat, and power, chiefly by use of the principles elaborated so many years ago by Mr. Edison.

We ought to mention that this tremendous growth has also been largely due to another invention made by him in 1882, called the "three-wire system." Its value consists in the fact that it allowed a further saving of sixty-two and one-half percent of copper required for conductors. This invention is in universal use all over the world.

It may be mentioned here that at the opening ceremonies of the Electrical Exposition in New York, on October 11, 1911, the leading producers and consumers of copper presented Mr. Edison with an inscribed cubic foot of that metal in recognition of the stimulus of his inventions to the industry. The inscription shows that the yearly output of copper was 377,644,000 pounds at the time of Edison's first invention in 1868, and in October, 1911, the yearly output had increased to 1,910,608,000 pounds.