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Published on
November 20th, 2020

History of Electricity in New York City

Residents of New York today take for granted the fact that they have abundant power for lights, cooking, electronics, and all the other luxuries of contemporary living. But it wasn’t always this way. While electricity had been discovered long before, it wasn’t harnessed for common consumption until the very end of the 19th century. Here’s a fascinating look at the history of electricity in New York City and how we went from the gas era into the modern age.

Life in New York Before Electricity

Gas lights and fireplaces

Before electricity became the norm as a power source in New York, city dwellers used a variety of methods to compensate and provide some level of comfort at home and at work. A complex system of pipes provided gas for lanterns that lit houses and streets. The gas was also used to power steam boilers that created hot water and radiator heat in the late 1800s, replacing fireplaces with more efficient and consistent warming.

The Broadway Experiment

“The Great White Way”

In the 1870s, some New Yorkers became interested in experiments with public electricity going on elsewhere in the world. For example, arc lighting, which produces illumination via an electric arc (electrons jumping across a gap in materials), had been installed near the Paris Opera for the Paris Exposition of 1878.

Soon after, a similar trial took place in New York City. In 1880, the Brush Electric Company, founded by Charles F. Brush, an American inventor and entrepreneur, built a central power station in Manhattan. It supplied arc lighting for two miles along Broadway between Herald and Union squares, giving the thoroughfare its moniker “The Great White Way.” Within about a decade, there were 1,500 arc lamps being used in New York City, mostly with large private customers, such as hotels and theaters.

Thomas Edison Lights the Way

Inspiration from Menlo Park, New Jersey

Electricity was still far from common in New York, however, even with the use of arc lighting, which was largely limited to outdoor use because of the danger of sparking. Around the time of Brush’s Broadway light installation, a group of aldermen from New York City paid a visit to Thomas Edison, the great inventor with a laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Edison had been using generators and incandescent lamps, with lightbulbs he invented in 1879, to light his city, piquing the curiosity of New York’s government.

When queried, Edison promised that New York could pay a third less by using electric lamps instead of gas models. They then put together a plan to light up 51 blocks in Lower Manhattan with over 8,000 lamps. Thus was born the Edison Illuminating Company of New York in 1881, giving the city its first electrical franchise. The city was thrilled with the opportunity to offer electric lighting on a more wide-scale basis, and Edison thought the project would serve as a showroom to entice more clients.

Edison purchased property on Pearl Street to house six dynamos, the 30-ton steam-fueled generators that would power his system. The operation wasn’t nearly as easy as it first sounded, though, because a power grid had to be installed, which entailed digging up long stretches of the Lower East Side to accommodate 80,000 feet of copper wiring, as well as attaching all the switchboards, lamps, meters, and other equipment required.

Finally, on September 4, 1882, Edison’s light system was turned on and deemed a success. This spurred major growth throughout New York, as more homes received electric power, skyscrapers were born, and an electric trolley system was constructed in the 1890s.

Edison vs. Westinghouse

Competition for current

Thomas Edison wasn’t the only one eyeing the potential for business in New York City, however. One issue that made the burgeoning electric supply competitive was that Edison’s system relied on direct current (DC), which meant the electric current flowed only in one direction, similar to a battery. A disadvantage of direct current is that it is not easily converted to different voltages to account for varying electrical needs. Sometimes Edison’s lights flickered, which customers found to be a nuisance.

To counter the issues with DC, Serbian-American scientist Nikola Tesla pioneered alternating current (AC) and the technology that accompanied it. Alternating current proved to be much more versatile than direct current because it allowed for changes in direction and magnitude. In New York, as Edison’s Pearl Street Station was in its infancy, other proponents of electricity for consumer use thought AC would be the way to go in the long run.

In 1889, the United Electric Light & Power Company, which began as an arc light company, was acquired by the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company, which was also looking to enter the Manhattan market. The enterprise introduced an AC system to the lower portion of the island that was designed to compete with Edison’s. The war of the currents was on.

At first, Edison dominated, through the turn of the century. His system extended all the way from the Battery to Central Park. But as more investors and inventors became involved in New York City’s electricity infrastructure, the need for AC began to win out. Eventually, a solution was found, which worked for decades in the early days of electrical power. The invention of the mercury arc rectifier in 1902 meant that alternating current could be converted into direct current, giving users the best of both worlds.

For the next 20 or so years, various companies vied for a piece of the pie. At one point, there were more than 30 such businesses generating electricity for New York City and Westchester County. In 1920, New York Edison was the leader.

In 1936, New York Edison became the Consolidated Edison Company of New York, Inc., which over the next several decades merged with and acquired more than 170 different electric, steam, and gas companies. Consolidated Edison, or Con Ed, as it is often called, still provides all the electricity to New York City today.

Do you feel sometimes like the electricity in your building is still stuck in the 19th century? Whether you need new wiring or simply want to update your old incandescent bulbs to LED ones, Bolt Electric would be pleased to help. Call us at 212-434-0098, or use our easy online form to schedule an appointment to bring your property into the 21st century.

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