Edison’s bulb is well-known but what’s less understood is the enormous infrastructure required to power it. Edison created a power plant in New York City, power cables, transformers, power meters, insulators. When the lights finally came on, at the New York Times building, it represented the end of a herculean undertaking and the beginning of a new era.
At the simplest, Edison’s long-lasting bulb lowered the cost of doing things at night.
Countless people, dating back to 1802 (77 years prior to Edison’s bulb), invented various lightbulbs. Russian engineer Paul Jablochkoff lit up the Avenue de l’Opera in Paris using arc lights from an AC generator. American William Wallace used arc lights to illuminate his foundry. But arc lights were too bright for ordinary use (they’d been in use, in lighthouses, since the 1860’s) and they were dangerous, routinely throwing sparks.
Edison, by then already a well-known innovator ー the “Wizard of Menlo Park” ー invented the first bulb suitable for indoor use, safe, long-lasting. Edison’s low-cost bulb represented a revolution. It was neither too bright, nor too dark, and safe.
Edison realized a series of centralized dynamos, rather than batteries, could create long-lasting electrical current, an electricity factory. He also worked out that the key to electrical distribution, and a lamp, was low amperage but (relatively) high voltage, requiring less copper wire to power the system.
“No Matches Are Needed…”
Edison’s Pearl Street Station came online Sept. 4, 1882.
Yesterday for the first time The Times Building was illuminated by electricity. Mr. Edison had at last perfected his incandescent light, had put his machinery in order, and had started up his engines, and last evening his company lighted up about one-third of the lower City district in which The Times Building stands. The light came on in sections. First there came in a series of holes in the floors and walls. Then several miles of protected wires, then a transparent little egg-shaped glass globe, and, last of all, the fixtures and ground glass shades that made everything complete.
The lamp is simplicity itself… To turn on the light nothing is required but to turn the thumbscrew; no matches are needed, no patent appliances. As soon as it is dark enough to need artificial light, you turn the thumbscrew and the light is there, with no nauseous smell, no flicker and no glare.The New York Times, Tuesday, September 5, 1882.
Using carbon thread, created from burnt cotton, in a vacuum tube the bulb that would light, and change the world, was born.
Decades passed before Edison’s low-cost light bulbs became ubiquitous due to a lack of widespread electrical grid.
Cornelius Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan financed Edison’s work.