When I see the crowds in Times Square, I'm often surprised at how many of them wonder why these huge advertising signs and umbrellas are lit up in New York, of all places, and why not so ostentatiously in any other city. I assume not many. But there's actually a reason and it's fascinating.
Lower Manhattan in the 1880s was a wonderland of futuristic technology and engineering: the city's first cable car ran across the harbor. A spindly steel bridge formed to connect Williamsburg to Manhattan. And on the Lower East Side, Thomas Edison tore up the streets to build the world's first stationary power plant.
In February 1881, Thomas Alva Edison left his workbench in Menlo Park, New Jersey, for New York City, with the challenge of not only bringing electric light to Manhattan but also proving that his light was suitable for practical use .
Edison had commissioned one of the most remarkable infrastructure projects in New York history - and he did it on the Lower East Side, on a street you unknowingly walk on today. Another thing you may not know about Edison's system, part of it was in use until 2007.
Edison wanted to illuminate this district on the Lower East Side (LES).
In the late 1870s, Edison claimed he would light the world with his light bulbs. The first step in his plan to do this? Creating something equivalent to a square mile gallery on the Lower East Side: an electrical grid that provided direct current power to a portion of the city thanks to energy generated at a new power plant at 257 Pearl Street. It would power some of the city's most important businesses, most notably The New York Times' old building - smart, considering the paper would inevitably cover the stunning development!
But Edison's great enlightenment took much longer than he expected, and the project was plagued with challenges. "It was huge, all the problems he had to solve," writer Jill Jonnes, author of "Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse and the Race to Electrify the World," tells PBS. For example, Edison had to do the dirty work of convincing city officials to allow him to use the Lower East Side as a testing site, which required excavating long stretches of street to install 25 kilometers of insulated copper cables beneath the surface.
He also had to design all of the hardware for his first power grid, including electrical panels, lamps, and even the actual meters used to charge specific amounts for specific buildings. This even included the six massive steam generators, each weighing 30 tons, that Edison had created for this unprecedented new network, according to the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers). Edison was responsible for figuring out all the operational details of the project - including a "board of 1,000 lamps to test the system:"
But on the evening of September 4, 1882, the system was finally put into action. The New York Times actually reported the development in its own building, writing the next day:
- "It was around 5 o'clock yesterday afternoon when the lights came on. It was bright and the lights seemed dim. It wasn't until around 7 o'clock, when it got dark, that the electric lights really made their presence felt and showed how bright and stable it is."
"And according to Mr. Edison, unless an earthquake stops them, they will keep going forever," the reporter added. Well, an earthquake, or the conceptual equivalent. It wouldn't be long before Westinghouse's alternating current/direct current - Tesla's brainchild - would displace Edison's direct current.
But interestingly, the remnants of Edison's Manhattan grid would last for over a century. The last piece of the DC system was decommissioned in 2007, according to another NY Times story about the slow decline of Edison's system. Fascinatingly, Edison's electrical fingerprint remained, longest, in the densest and busiest parts of the city; while AC connections began in the outskirts and crept inward, Manhattan's older DC systems took decades of long work to replace.
The next time you walk down Pearl Street, perhaps on your way to TD Bank or Western Union, which currently occupy the same stretch of street, remember: The electric birth of NYC once erupted beneath your feet.