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New York City has long represented one of the most concentrated urban developments in the world. He succeeded, but the limited transmission range of the direct current system in use at that time presented an obstacle to large scale electric service. Pioneer alternating current systems promised to make large scale installations feasible, but they required substantial research and development. The industrial revolution that swept the United States after the Civil War produced overcrowding in Manhattan that threatened the economic stability of the city. At that time, the Madison Park area was one of residences and fine hotels about to be overtaken by commercial development.
To do so, it was necessary to develop improved power sources for industry and transportation. The initial efforts to produce an electric light used an electric arc (spark) sustained between carbon electrodes.
Little has been recorded, but it is known that a substantial arc light installation was located in the College of St. Professor Elihu Thomson of Philadelphia was another leader in the research effort, having developed an arc lamp independently of Brush.
All of those installations required substantial investment and innovation because no power system existed at that time. Those pioneer arc light systems of Brush and Thomson were the first of a new technology that transformed the interiors of institutions and large industrial and commercial establishments. Most of the efforts to develop an electric light suited to interior spaces entailed the use of a material heated to incandescence by internal resistance to the passage of the current.
With the Thomson report as a base, Edison directed his staff to develop a series of generators rated in size from seventy-five to two-hundred and fifty lamps. Edison promoted his light with vigor; in 1884 the company sponsored an electric light parade down Fifth Avenue. The convenience and appearance of electric lighting was obvious to all, but was affordable only by the wealthy.
Brush, Edison, Thomson, and others anticipated a huge market for electric light service sold as a utility in the same manner as that by which gas, telegraph, and telephone services were provided. The opinions expressed in both original and cross-posted articles on this blog belong to their authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Murphy Institute, CUNY or SPS.
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New York Presbyterian Hospital is one of the most comprehensive university hospitals in the world, with leading specialists in every field of medicine. NYPH realized that their considerable energy consumption overexposed the hospital to the risk of higher energy costs and hired EN-POWER GROUP to assist in the development and implementation of its overall comprehensive energy reduction and management strategy. And actively promoting the success of the energy program in order to raise awareness of the improvements both within and outside of the organization and to develop viability and leadership within the hospital’s market sector. It was obvious that the load of the midtown area required electric capacity on a scale that surpassed any planned elsewhere. The local system has been interconnected with those of other companies, states, and Canada to produce a regional network of power supply.
By 1880, it was the northern end of the “Ladies’ Mile” of specialty shops and department stores that advanced along Sixth Avenue and Broadway from the vicinity of Eighth Street. Coal fired steam engines were used extensively, nevertheless progressive researchers sought to develop electric power. Explored initially for lighthouses and naval searchlights, the arc light was developed subsequently for the illumination of streets and large interior spaces.
An installation in a local bakery saved the lives of delivery wagon horses during a disastrous fire for, in the words of the fire chief, “it remained lit no matter how much water poured on it.” Thomson and his colleague Edwin Houston then formed the Thomson-Houston Company to market the system.
Mechanical power generation was mandatory as chemical batteries could not produce current at sufficient voltage (pressure) to operate an arc light system. Power was supplied by a lighting plant that consisted of an electric generator driven by a steam engine.
Thomas Edison, an inventor already famed for his phonograph, stock ticker, and telegraphy inventions, received the patent that was later recognized as primary.
Edison lighting plants were soon in service not only in homes and offices, but also on ships and railroad cars.
Hidden generators on “floats” supplied a number of lamps on the hats and uniforms of the marchers, even the baton of the leader was adorned with a lamp! Still, electric lighting was popular and the incandescent light found application in the better hotels and successful business establishments.


Festive electric lighting was introduced on the evening of Friday, December 22, 1882 when Edison associate Edward H.
That required the development of a central station to generate power and a distribution system to supply individual customers. This was a particularly complex and sensitive project, given the sheer size of their energy portfolio and the necessity of keeping the facility in uninterrupted operation throughout the process. Cunningham’s new book New York Power, which tells the story of the development of today’s New York City electric utility system. Electric light and power appeared during the 1880s, but much development was required to supply urban service at a cost that would make possible large-scale consumption. Furthermore, the electric demand of the area was constant as the city became a twenty-four hour metropolis. Others preferred the retention of direct current distribution with the use of alternating current restricted to generation and transmission. All that effort has been directed toward one objective: the provision of reliable and efficient service to an area that has no equal in the degree of load density.
Elevated railway lines enabled such expansion for residential development, but business favored the midtown and downtown locations. Thomas Davenport of Vermont had patented a basic electric motor in 1835, and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad tested an electric locomotive in 1851. The work of Jesuit Father Joseph Neri, it was part of the Cabinet (Department) of Physical Sciences, but was expanded temporarily along Market Street in 1876 as part of the celebration of the nation’s Centennial on July 4th of that year.
A host of other inventors and electric companies marketed arc light systems by the early 1880s.
Early efforts to produce mechanical generators encountered an obstacle in that the rotation of the coils produced a current that oscillated in both strength and direction.
Then known as dynamos, such generators were exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial Fair of 1876, but the Bell telephone and Corliss stationary steam engine attracted greater public interest. Most were installed in basements; large institutions often used separate structures to isolate the noise and smoke. Competitors sold similar lamps and lighting systems, some of which infringed upon the Edison patent. The sound of throbbing steam engines represented progress to urban dwellers familiar with steam engines in factories.
Johnson opened his home to visitors to display the world‘s first electrically lighted Christmas Tree.
In that way the expense of construction and operation might be divided among thousands of users.
Murphy Institute comes out of a singular collaboration among labor unions, city workers, community organizations and academic institutions and their faculty and staff. Department of Energy in 2005 and 2006 as ENERGY STAR Partner of the Year for Leadership in Energy Management, and in 2007 and 2008 as ENERGY STAR Partner of the Year for Sustained Excellence in Energy Management. Innovation was needed most in midtown Manhattan, where the sheer density of electrical load overwhelmed the early systems and which continues to be the greatest concentration of electrical load in the world. The daytime load of industrial and commercial activity was supplanted in the evening by that of theaters, hotels and restaurants.
The latter approach predominated as a result of technical constraints and the substantial investment in direct current motors that were in place though a small but determined competitor introduced an alternating current system to the area. New networks are installed, systems rearranged, and capacity increased even as the topography of the city evolves. The area of the West Thirties known as the “Tenderloin” was declared by civic reformers to be the most morally decadent spot on earth. After an initial demonstration in his home, Brush arc lamps were installed in San Francisco in 1879 and then at the courthouse at Wabash, Indiana, the following year.
Incompatible with the steady unidirectional direct current produced by chemical batteries, the “alternating” current produced mechanically did not obey the simple rules that had been derived by the physicists of the period. Arc lamps were limited to large spaces because the glow was much too brilliant for direct viewing in a confined area. Edison then developed a complete lighting system and announced a demonstration at his laboratory in Menlo Park, N.J. The elimination of noxious fumes from gas seemed a wonder; the nuisance of the plants a small price to pay for progress. The leading trade journal, Electrical World, described in January of 1885 a Christmas tree in the home of Johnson.
Such public service required not only major financial investment but also substantial technical development.
The first public service was initiated in 1880 with the illumination of Broadway, Madison Park and some businesses by arc lights of the Brush Electric Company.


As those loads and that of residential customers tapered off, the demand of bakeries, dairies, cleaning services, and other nighttime businesses reached a peak. In 1926, the innovators succeeded and the decision to retire direct- current service followed two years later. This book will focus on the midtown area from Times Square to Madison Square that was the site of the city’s first electric street illumination, and also that of the first power stations planned to provide a full range of service. A number of schemes were proposed for what would today be called “redevelopment” but large-scale change required increased industry and commerce. The limited capacity of those batteries proved an obstacle to the further development of electric motors.
The 1879 installation by the California Electric Light Company in the Pacific Building in San Francisco supplied lights in other buildings and may have been the first instance of public electric service. Neri encouraged development of electric power with the declaration that it would one day revolutionize industry and rail transportation. An automatic switch or commutator was developed that reversed the connections as needed to produce a steady direct current. Thomson was engaged by the Franklin Institute to survey and test a variety of generators prior to the purchase of one by the museum. A number of researchers sought to reproduce the soft glow of gas mantles in an electric light suitable for homes and offices. Held on New Year’s Eve; the public response was such that the Pennsylvania Railroad had to operate special trains to carry the throngs of visitors.
That approach failed, and extensive litigation later proved the Edison patent to be primary. Most were located in basements; the repair of such a plant was said to be the first work undertaken by the brilliant Serbian electrical scientist Nikola Tesla upon his arrival in New York.
Festooned with small lamps of different colors that flashed sequentially as the tree was rotated by a motor in the base, it was a sensation of the day.
As the arc light companies enjoyed a substantial lead, those systems were the first to provide public service. Two years later, Thomas Edison introduced incandescent light service to the offices and businesses of the financial district from his station on Pearl Street. The size and complexity of the “changeover” process was such that it took decades, and remnants of the old direct current distribution system were not retired until late 2007. It was also the area in which alternating current first challenged and then ultimately vanquished the original direct current system.
Most research effort focused on the development of electric light, and those pioneers built the first systems for mechanical generation of electric power.
If the power line crossed a public thoroughfare, then that installation would qualify as the first public electric utility service under one standard definition. Thomson produced an extensive catalog of the available designs which proved to be of great value to all of the pioneers. In addition to lights in the buildings, the grounds were illuminated by lamps suspended from wires.
Observing the emanation of blue flashes and language of similar hue from a basement, Tesla found a man frustrated by a cantankerous generator.
While that installation entered the record books, his long term objective was the midtown area. It was also necessary to use a steam engine that would perform well when connected to an electric generator. Joseph Swan of England invented the lamp independently, and Brush had obtained rights to the Swan patents in an effort to insure the continued viability of his company. Familiar with the machine from his work in Europe, Tesla repaired the machine in short order and made a business contact that proved significant to his later endeavors. Edison considered the establishment of electric service in the area of the West Twenties and Thirties vital to the future of his company.
Speed control was vital as variation produced instability in the voltage and thus in the intensity of the light that was produced. The system operated at 110 volts, a pressure that simplified the design of generators, wires, and lamps.



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