April 01, 2018 Feature

A Century Plus of Power and Light

By Casey Wren, Mark Strain, and Everett Britt

On September 4, 1882,1 the great Thomas Edison’s new business venture, Edison Illuminating Company, commenced operation of the first commercial central power plant in the world.2 Edison named it the Pearl Street Station because it was located at 255–257 Pearl Street in the downtown financial district of Manhattan. The plant ran on coal and could illuminate up to 1,400 incandescent light bulbs continuously using direct current. History does not tell us whether there were lawyers standing beside Edison when the Pearl Street Station commenced operations. We do know, however, that bankers were present, for it is said that Edison inaugurated his commercial electric service by gathering the press and publicly switching on the lights in the office of his financier, J.P. Morgan.3 The electric current that the Pearl Street Station supplied was, for reasons of primitive technology, limited to illuminating Edison’s light bulbs, thus the name Edison Illuminating Company. This was, after all 1882, some five years before Nikola Tesla, working with George Westinghouse, developed an induction motor that ran on current reversing its direction many times a second—what would become known as alternating current. While electrical lighting that ran on direct current was itself a great thing, it was the electric motor running on alternating current that would become the muscle of mankind.4

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