While the gas business in New York was well established by the late 1870s, the work of Thomas Edison, the "Wizard of Menlo Park," was soon to cause great changes.
Experiments in electric generation had been under way for decades, and by 1878, the Avenue de l'Opera in Paris was lit with electric arc lamps. But arc lamps gave off a harsh light, and while many inventors tried to create a more pleasing and durable light, none met with success until Thomas Edison turned his thorough and methodical attention to the problem.
Backed by financiers, including J.P. Morgan and the Vanderbilt family, Edison established the Edison Electric Light Company to own and license his patents in the electric light field. After more than a year of experiments, Edison and his young assistant, Francis Upton, finally developed a carbon filament that would burn in a vacuum in a glass bulb for forty hours. They demonstrated the light bulb to their backers early in December 1879, and by the end of the month were exhibiting the invention to the public.
Edison then concentrated on developing a complete system of electric generation and distribution that would turn his light bulb into a commercially efficient and economical business. The Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York was incorporated on December 17, 1880, to develop and install a central generating station. Edison's system would consist of the large central power plant with its generators (called dynamos); voltage regulating devices; copper wires connecting the plant to other buildings; the wiring, switches, and fixtures in the interiors of those buildings; and the light bulbs themselves. The method of supplying electricity from a central station to illuminate buildings in a surrounding district had already been demonstrated by Edison in London in 1881, and self-contained plants were in place in some of Edison's buildings and in a few private residences in New York, like that of J. P. Morgan.
Edison received more than two hundred patents between 1879 and 1882 as he solved numerous problems in the generation, distribution, and metering of electric current. He had to develop even the most basic equipment fuses, sockets, fixtures, switches, meters and he had to build and test each part. Following the model for gas and water distribution, Edison was an early proponent of underground electric mains and services, and the first street mains were installed in New York during the summer of 1881.
At the Pearl Street station in lower Manhattan, Edison's team installed the largest dynamos ever built. Each "Jumbo" dynamo (named after a popular circus elephant) weighed about 27 tons and had an output of 100 kilowatts enough to power more than 1,100 lights. Each of the six dynamos was driven by a steam engine, which received steam from boilers located in another part of the plant.
At 3 p.m. on September 4, 1882, Edison's electric illuminating system went into operation. With the opening of Pearl Street, it was now possible for homes and businesses to purchase electric light at a price that could compete with gas. By October 1, 1882, less than a month after the opening of the station, Edison Electric boasted 59 customers. By December 1, it had 203, and a year later, 513. Pearl Street became the model that led the way for electrification in cities and towns across the United States. The plant remained in operation until 1895, and a commemorative plaque from 1917 marks the location today. For more information about Pearl Street, which marked its 125th anniversary in 2007, visit www.coned.com/pearlstreet125 .
Edison was not alone in realizing both the practical and business applications of electricity. In 1880, Charles Francis Brush and his Brush Electric Light Company installed carbon arc lights along Broadway from 14th Street to 34th Street. Fed from a small generating station at 25th Street, the electric arc lights went into regular service on December 20, 1880. When the Brooklyn Bridge opened on May 24, 1883, it was lighted by seventy arc lamps operated by another competitor, the United States Illuminating Company. By 1886, some 1,500 arc lights had been installed in Manhattan.
In 1887, H.H. Westinghouse (a younger brother of George Westinghouse) and his associates incorporated the Safety Electric Light and Power Company (later called the United Electric Light and Power Company) to generate and distribute alternating current power in New York. Other electric companies were created to serve nearby areas outside of Manhattan. Across the East River, the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of Brooklyn was incorporated in 1887 and was soon competing with Kings County Electric Light. By 1900, there were more than 30 companies generating and distributing electricity throughout the boroughs of New York City and in Westchester County.
As with New York's gas businesses, competition was strong, and mergers and acquisitions became common. The majority of Manhattan's electric companies were united under the umbrella of The New York Gas, Electric Light, Heat & Power Company, which later acquired a controlling interest in Edison Electric. Consolidated Gas acquired these companies and others, and in 1901 consolidated all of the electric utilities it controlled at the time into a single subsidiary called The New York Edison Company.
The company's facilities continued to grow in response to the ever-increasing energy demands of New York. When it opened in 1901, Brooklyn Edison's Waterside station was physically the world's largest generating plant. With a rated capacity of 120,000 kilowatts, it had more than 10 times the capacity of Pearl Street. Along with the even larger, 770,000-kilowatt Hudson Avenue plant completed in the mid-1920s, Waterside eventually became a pioneer of what today is called cogeneration; the plants produced steam for heating and cooling with electricity as a by-product.
In the grand tradition of the Jumbo dynamos, the six-story boilers installed at Fourteenth Street and East River were so large that a luncheon for nearly 100 people was served inside one of them before the renovated station went into operation in the late 1920s. During the opening day ceremony in 1926, Queen Marie of Rumania flipped the switch to start the 100,000 horsepower turbine generator.
By 1932, New York Edison's parent company, Consolidated Gas, was the largest company in the world providing electrical service. In 1936, with electric sales far ahead of gas sales, Consolidated Gas changed its name to the Consolidated Edison Company of New York, Inc. Between 1936 and 1960, Consolidated Edison acquired or merged with more than a dozen companies (including Westchester Lighting Company and Yonkers Electric Light & Power in 1951).
In the late 1970s, statutes contained in the National Energy Act initiated a significant restructuring of the electricity industry. In 1994, the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) started a Competitive Opportunities Proceeding to prepare for an open energy market in New York. As part of an agreement reached in 1997 among Con Edison, PSC staff, and other parties, the company developed a plan to promote competition in its service area. The agreement required Con Edison to sell the majority of its electric generating plants, as well as some properties where future plants might be built. On January 1, 1998, Con Edison changed from a vertically integrated utility into a holding company with regulated and unregulated subsidiaries.
Today, Con Edison operates one of the largest and most complex yet most reliable electric power systems in the world. Con Edison delivers electricity to more than three million customers through the world's largest system of underground electric cables some 94,000 miles complemented by 36,000 miles of overhead electric wires.
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