The 128th Anniversary of the Beginning of the Electric Power Industry

Michael Giberson

From the IEEE Global History Network:

With the opening of the Pearl Street station in lower Manhattan at 3 o’clock in the afternoon on 4 September 1882, Thomas Edison publicly presented a complete system of commercial electric lighting and power. The success of the Edison bulb created a demand for a source of power. It was this demand that led to the construction of the Pearl Street station and launched the modern electric utility industry. The Pearl Street station featured reliable central power generation, safe and efficient distribution, and a successful end use (that is, his long-lasting incandescent light bulb) at a price that competed with gas lighting.

When I introduce my students to the origins of the electric power industry, I try to disabuse them of the idea that Edison did everything. I note, for example, that Joseph Swan patented an electric light before Edison and that Edison took Swan as a partner rather than risk a patent battle over Edison’s very similar bulb. Westinghouse, Tesla, and Insull share the stage with Edison. But I think it pretty clear we can date the emergence of the electric power industry to September 4, 1882, when Edison flipped a switch at the Pearl Street Station and powered up many electric lights all at once.

Sometime today when you flip a light switch, marvel at the instant-on, safe, reliable lighting that is made possible by the efforts of Thomas Edison and the many, many other people working in the electric power industry.