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It has taken almost three years, but Edison, now thirty-five, is ready to unveil something that will amaze even New Yorkers, who are famous for thinking they've already seen it all.
Today's innovation shows the real difference between Edison and other inventors. He didn't stop after perfecting electric light. He has created an electric light system, taking into account all the practical difficulties that inventors in a lab usually leave to other engineers or later generations.
Today Edison will throw a switch to start six massive steam generators at a power plant on Pearl Street, which is near the base of Manhattan, not far from the Brooklyn Bridge and City Hall. If all goes well, those generators will convert that steam power into electricity, and the city that never sleeps will be lit all night.
Edison and his staff are making a careful last inspection of the facility and the equipment before he heads to the office of his chief investor, the millionaire J.â?¯P. Morgan. He has arranged to have the switch placed in Morgan's office, where Morgan and other financiers will be present.
Morgan is already a strong supporter of Edison's inventions. His home a few miles uptown is one of the few in the city equipped with electric lamps instead of gas for illumination. Edison has even installed a private generator for Morgan, to avoid the usualchemical batteries.
Edison isn't worried about failure today. He has already tested the system twice, once aboard a ship and the other time in London. He also limited his first effort to the downtown core so he could focus on getting it right before offering it to the rest of the country. Of course, attempting a project like this in the busiest part of New York is asking for trouble. It could have been completed more easily just about anywhere else. But Edison has his reasons for this location. This is the financial district, and he wants to impress the people whose money he'll need for expansion. The New York Times is also within the square mile his system covers. (It'll be another twenty years before the paper moves to Longacre Square at Forty-second Street, which will be renamed Times Square.) As usual, Edison is courting good publicity. He installed lights in the newspaper for free.
Edison's obsession with detail has served him well on this project. He started his design in a way modern business schools would admire: with careful market research. A house-by-house survey produced a complete picture of the district: the number of gas jets in the buildings, how many hours they burned, how much gas they used, and what each customer spent. Armed with this information, he calculated the amount of electrical power his generators must produce to properly service the customers, and what price would seem attractive.
Early on, Edison concluded that his wiring and cables should be underground, rather than strung on existing poles that carry telephone and telegraph wires. Adverse weather, occasional dangling wires and rickety installation of crossbeams convinced him he needed a more secure conduit for his cables. It took much persuasion and pressure on New York City's mayor and its other politicians before they agreed to let him dig beneath the city streets and plant his miles of wiring. Now there's one hundred thousand feet of cable -- almost nineteen miles of it -- running beneath this plant's range of one square mile.
As the concept of the system began to develop, Edison and his staff at Menlo Park created the blueprints for each piece of equipment required. They've been awarded more than eighty new patents for their innovations, and dozens more are waiting approval.
Edison even had to invent a method for measuring his customer's usage so he could charge them accurately. He came up with a chemical solution that formed a coating on a metal strip when electricity was sent through it. By weighing the strip at the end of each month, Edison could translate the increase in weight from the added coating into a figure for how much electricity had been used. Morgan was skeptical about the system at first, but when he used his own home as a test he discovered Edison's method almost exactly matched the records Morgan's employees kept by hand.
Always the salesman, Edison plans to manufacture and sell every piece of equipment in the system, including the lightbulbs. The Electric Light division of his company is already producing more than a thousand bulbs a day. Like a computer company that sells music for less than it costs so people will buy its portable music players, Edison is keeping the price of the bulbs low so people will sign up for electricity service. In fact, the whole operation is expected to lose money for a while. Edison doesn't care. He envisions plants all over the world. In time, he figures, the cost of making the equipment and providing the service will come down.
At the offices of the Times, extensive arrangements have been made in anticipation of the test. In the editorial room, twenty-seven electric lamps hang beneath the extended bronze arm of existing gas fixtures. Another twenty-five lamps have been installed in the newspaper's business department. Each lamp has a thumbscrew. As the Times will later report, "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."
There are about four hundred lamps on the system for this launch, spread over almost ninety customers. At every location, people are gathering.
When Edison is finally satisfied that everything at the Pearl Street station is ready to go, he walks to Morgan's office. He throws the switch at exactly 3:00Â p.m., and back at the the Pearl Street station the massive dynamos -- nicknamed "Jumbos" -- begin to turn.
Because it's still daylight, the glow from the lamps disappoints some customers. The Times doesn't turn on its lamps for another hour or two, and even then the light looks dim. Some of the newsmen grumble. Then night falls.
"[A]bout seven o'clock, when it began to grow dark," the Times will later report, "the electric light really made itself known and showed how bright and steady it is....It was a light that a man could sit down under and write for hours without the consciousness of having any artificial light about him."
Edison is justifiably proud of this accomplishment. To design a whole system like this, using parts that have to be designed as well, is an engineering triumph. Even more impressive is the fact that the system is made for the public rather than expert users. Edison has simplified everything for customers who think of electricity as coming from chemical batteries or noisy, expensive dynamos. The customer merely has to turn a switch. It's the same idea that Apple Computer's Steve Jobs will follow a hundred years later when he's designing the first Macintosh.
The Times declares the system is a success. It plans to install another three or four hundred more lamps in the building, "enough to make every corner of it as bright as day."
Copyright © 2008 by David Colbert
Excerpted from Thomas Edison by David Colbert
Copyright © 2008 by David Colbert. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted August 26, 2012
Posted November 6, 2014
This book is about Thomas Edison, the ten biggest day in his life., include how his childhood, to his dieth. The author of this book is David Colbert I think this book is good biography it's shows the important fact that's happen in Thomas Edison's life, He was the guy who make light bulb, maybe and that's well known, but do you know he invent the first “camera”. And behind that kind successful man, do you know he event do jobs like selling paper before. And as a inventor he also is a success businesses man, he buy his first house in New York by his businesses career. And this book shows many things that maybe you don't know about Thomas Edison. If your interesting about Edison or how light bulb are make, read this book. And it's more like to fit kids that's 13 year's oldWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.