Edison created the first public electric company, powered by DC, in 1882 in lower Manhattan. His system included generators, junction boxes, fuses, sockets, and parallel wiring. Since DC current could not be transmitted far Edison’s initial electrical plant was limited in scope. Eventually, there would be many small, expensive electricity plants scattered around major cities in the US.
Insull worked for Edison, starting in 1881. He created electric plants throughout the US. An early Edison employee, Insull was one of the founders of General Electric.
He left GE in 1892 under circumstances that are unclear. Historians speculate GE passed him over for promotion or he disagreed on how to finance the company. In any event, GE culture has a long history of pushing out talent.
In any event, Insull eventually moved to Chicago and ramped up his own electric company, envisioning something entirely different, a mass market for electricity. Before Insull, there were about 5,000 Chicago customers electrified because electricity was extremely expensive.
Before Insull, there were many noisy, expensive, small, polluting power plants. After him, there were far fewer, much larger, far-away power plants. He created the modern centralized electric factory transforming electricity into a mass-market product. Insull was also the first to use turbines to drive ever-larger electrical generators.
The Electric Factory & Modern Grid
Insull built massive scale, extended the grid everywhere, vastly lowered the price, and increased the reach of electric to four million people. He wanted to electrify everybody near and far, to turn electric into a must-have commodity like water. Because generated electricity that was not used was wasted Insull also had to convince his new electrified customers to use electricity.
Insull, with a personal net worth of $150 million in 1929, went bankrupt during the Great Depression. He’d raised an enormous amount of investment and lost not only his own funds but also those of his investors. Worried, he fled to Paris, was kidnapped in Turkey, then returned to the US where he was criminally charged with selling worthless stock. However, a jury acquitted him after five minutes of jury deliberation. He died, in 1938, with a net worth of -$16 million.