Sept. 4, 1882
at 3 p.m. Thomas Alva Edison stood in the Wall
Street offices of financial mogul J.P. Morgan
and switched on his Edison incandescent light
bulb – a bulb powered by a generator at his new
Pearl Street Station power plant several city
Instantly, the room
was filled with a soft, continuous light
produced without gas or flame. At the nearby
offices of the New York Times, 52 light bulbs
installed by Edison glowed, prompting the paper
to describe the new electric light as “soft,
mellow and graceful to the eye…without a
particle of flicker to make the head ache.”
Key to his
centralized electrical lighting system was a
network of underground wires and tubes that
branched from the station and transmitted power
to users. That elaborate, interconnected grid of
transmission lines, in the heart of Manhattan’s
business district, marked the beginning of New
York’s bulk electricity grid.
Today, New York’s
bulk electricity grid spans 10,775 miles,
transporting power to more than 7 million
electricity ratepayers and 19 million residents
statewide. Operated by the New York Independent
System Operator, the grid is one of the most
sophisticated power delivery systems in the
world, providing reliable, safe energy to Empire
State residents every day.
“In 1882, Thomas
Edison’s Pearl Street Station was a marvel, a
complete electric lighting, generation and
distribution system that for the first time
offered the safe, reliable delivery of
electricity at competitive prices,” said Mark S.
Lynch, the NYISO’s President and CEO. In 2007,
New York’s bulk electricity grid is no less a
marvel, reliably distributing power available
for use day or night at the lowest possible
He added: “Our open,
competitive markets foster innovations such as
our Demand Response Programs, increased
transmission capacity, the addition of new
generation and renewable power resources. Our
robust planning processes combine to make New
York’s bulk electricity grid one of the world’s
premiere power systems.”
Like New York’s bulk
electricity grid, Edison’s power system quickly
proved to be a reliable and economical way to
transport electricity, its success trumpeted by
newspapers of the day such as the New York
Herald, which described the debut of Pearl
Street Station in its Sept. 5, 1882 editions:
“In a twinkling, the area bounded by Spruce,
Wall, Nassau, and Pearl Streets was in a glow.”
Creating that glow
wasn’t an easy task by any means. Edison
developed a huge 27-ton dynamo – which is what
generators were called in the 19th century –
dubbed “Jumbo” that converted mechanical energy
into low-voltage direct current electricity to
power his plant. By 1884, Pearl Street Station –
which only operated at night – was serving 508
customers with more than 10,000 lamps. Six Jumbo
dynamos, each producing about 1,100 kilowatts,
were needed to light up the plant’s one-square
mile service area.
limitations, Pearl Street Station’s
interconnected grid became a model for power
generation and distribution systems nationwide.
But for Edison, the question of how to
distribute the power was perhaps more
challenging than producing the electricity to
light the bulbs.
For safety reasons,
Edison insisted on installing his power lines
underground – a costly endeavor that required
Edison to convince the mayor of New York City to
allow him to dig up the streets to install
100,000 feet of wiring to connect customers to
the power plant. Installing the wiring was one
of the project’s most expensive undertakings.
To go with his power
system, Edison developed other necessary items,
including a meter to track a customer’s
electricity usage, and better generators. A
savvy entrepreneur, Edison built manufacturing
plants for light bulbs, generators and other
power system components, consolidating his
operations in Schenectady, New York.
Even Edison couldn’t
have foreseen the impact of his power station
and electric grid system.
Station’s centralized lighting system quickly
pointed out the need for larger power generation
systems, power generated in voltages other than
lighting (110 volts) and a far-reaching grid
system to deliver electricity over greater
Still, Pearl Street
Station faithfully produced power until an 1890
fire destroyed all but one of the system’s
generators. The station, which had been dwarfed
by larger power plants distributing power to
larger service areas, was rebuilt and operated
until 1895, when it was deemed obsolete and
dismantled. A commemorative plaque marking the
Pearl Street Station’s site was placed there in
1917 by the New York Edison Company.
Edison's use of
low-voltage direct current limited the practical
reach of his generating station to about
one-half mile. To impress financial backers, the
station was situated in the heart of Manhattan's
business district at 257 Pearl Street.
Underground lines radiated out to cover the
blocks indicated (bold lines) in this drawing.
Note the Brooklyn Bridge (not yet completed at
the time) spanning the East River.
Station distribution area, New York, c. 1883
Image 69231, Electricity & Modern Physics
Collection National Museum of American History
Smithsonian Institution copyright, Smithsonian
For more information, see
any of the following sources:
“Lighting a Revolution,”
Smithsonian Museum of National History Web site.
“Pearl Street Station:
The Dawn of Commercial Electric Power,” The IEEE
History Center @ Rutgers University Web site.
From Edison to Enron,
by Richard Munson (pg. 8-22)
“History of the Electric
Power Industry,” Edison Electric Institute Web site.
“A Brief History of Con
Edison,” Consolidated Edison Inc. Web site.
“The Discovery and
Application of Energy,” Northeast Utilities System