New York Power

By Joseph J. Cunningham

The following is an excerpt from Murphy adjunct Prof. Joseph J. Cunningham’s new book New York Power, which tells the story of the development of today’s New York City electric utility system.

New York City has long represented one of the most concentrated urban developments in the world. That density has placed unique constraints on every aspect of life. Electric light and power appeared during the 1880s, but much development was required to supply urban service at a cost that would make possible large-scale consumption. Innovation was needed most in midtown Manhattan, where the sheer density of electrical load overwhelmed the early systems and which continues to be the greatest concentration of electrical load in the world. The first public service was initiated in 1880 with the illumination of Broadway, Madison Park and some businesses by arc lights of the Brush Electric Company. Two years later, Thomas Edison introduced incandescent light service to the offices and businesses of the financial district from his station on Pearl Street. While that installation entered the record books, his long term objective was the midtown area. Edison considered the establishment of electric service in the area of the West Twenties and Thirties vital to the future of his company.

He succeeded, but the limited transmission range of the direct current system in use at that time presented an obstacle to large scale electric service. It was obvious that the load of the midtown area required electric capacity on a scale that surpassed any planned elsewhere. Furthermore, the electric demand of the area was constant as the city became a twenty-four hour metropolis. The daytime load of industrial and commercial activity was supplanted in the evening by that of theaters, hotels and restaurants. As those loads and that of residential customers tapered off, the demand of bakeries, dairies, cleaning services, and other nighttime businesses reached a peak.

Pioneer alternating current systems promised to make large scale installations feasible, but they required substantial research and development. Some experts favored the use of alternating current exclusively. Others preferred the retention of direct current distribution with the use of alternating current restricted to generation and transmission. The latter approach predominated as a result of technical constraints and the substantial investment in direct current motors that were in place though a small but determined competitor introduced an alternating current system to the area. In 1926, the innovators succeeded and the decision to retire direct- current service followed two years later. The size and complexity of the “changeover” process was such that it took decades, and remnants of the old direct current distribution system were not retired until late 2007.

Evolution has been constant as new concepts and techniques have been developed. The local system has been interconnected with those of other companies, states, and Canada to produce a regional network of power supply. All that effort has been directed toward one objective: the provision of reliable and efficient service to an area that has no equal in the degree of load density. New networks are installed, systems rearranged, and capacity increased even as the topography of the city evolves. This book will focus on the midtown area from Times Square to Madison Square that was the site of the city’s first electric street illumination, and also that of the first power stations planned to provide a full range of service. It was also the area in which alternating current first challenged and then ultimately vanquished the original direct current system.


The industrial revolution that swept the United States after the Civil War produced overcrowding in Manhattan that threatened the economic stability of the city. Confined to a long narrow island, the city could expand only to the north. Elevated railway lines enabled such expansion for residential development, but business favored the midtown and downtown locations. In those areas, the only practical expansion was upward. Steel “skeleton” frame construction promised to expand the height of structures but that option was constrained by the limited ability of citizens to tolerate multiple flights of stairs. Hydraulic elevators were developed but proved cumbersome and expensive. As a result, the highest points in the city were church steeples and the Brooklyn Bridge.

At that time, the Madison Park area was one of residences and fine hotels about to be overtaken by commercial development. By 1880, it was the northern end of the “Ladies’ Mile” of specialty shops and department stores that advanced along Sixth Avenue and Broadway from the vicinity of Eighth Street. North of Madison Park, the residences gave way to an emerging entertainment district that later became known as “Tin Pan Alley.” The two year-old elevated railway on Sixth Avenue was considered a double-edged sword; it brought commerce but also disrupted the genteel life. The area of the West Thirties known as the “Tenderloin” was declared by civic reformers to be the most morally decadent spot on earth. A number of schemes were proposed for what would today be called “redevelopment” but large-scale change required increased industry and commerce.

To do so, it was necessary to develop improved power sources for industry and transportation. Coal fired steam engines were used extensively, nevertheless progressive researchers sought to develop electric power. Thomas Davenport of Vermont had patented a basic electric motor in 1835, and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad tested an electric locomotive in 1851. Both efforts used the chemical batteries of the day. The limited capacity of those batteries proved an obstacle to the further development of electric motors. Most research effort focused on the development of electric light, and those pioneers built the first systems for mechanical generation of electric power.

The initial efforts to produce an electric light used an electric arc (spark) sustained between carbon electrodes. Explored initially for lighthouses and naval searchlights, the arc light was developed subsequently for the illumination of streets and large interior spaces. The leading arc light pioneer in the United States was Charles Brush of Cleveland, Ohio. After an initial demonstration in his home, Brush arc lamps were installed in San Francisco in 1879 and then at the courthouse at Wabash, Indiana, the following year. The 1879 installation by the California Electric Light Company in the Pacific Building in San Francisco supplied lights in other buildings and may have been the first instance of public electric service. If the power line crossed a public thoroughfare, then that installation would qualify as the first public electric utility service under one standard definition.

Little has been recorded, but it is known that a substantial arc light installation was located in the College of St. Ignatius, now the University of San Francisco. The work of Jesuit Father Joseph Neri, it was part of the Cabinet (Department) of Physical Sciences, but was expanded temporarily along Market Street in 1876 as part of the celebration of the nation’s Centennial on July 4th of that year. More than a decade ahead of his contemporaries, Fr. Neri encouraged development of electric power with the declaration that it would one day revolutionize industry and rail transportation.

Professor Elihu Thomson of Philadelphia was another leader in the research effort, having developed an arc lamp independently of Brush. An installation in a local bakery saved the lives of delivery wagon horses during a disastrous fire for, in the words of the fire chief, “it remained lit no matter how much water poured on it.” Thomson and his colleague Edwin Houston then formed the Thomson-Houston Company to market the system. A host of other inventors and electric companies marketed arc light systems by the early 1880s.

All of those installations required substantial investment and innovation because no power system existed at that time. Mechanical power generation was mandatory as chemical batteries could not produce current at sufficient voltage (pressure) to operate an arc light system. Early efforts to produce mechanical generators encountered an obstacle in that the rotation of the coils produced a current that oscillated in both strength and direction. Incompatible with the steady unidirectional direct current produced by chemical batteries, the “alternating” current produced mechanically did not obey the simple rules that had been derived by the physicists of the period. An automatic switch or commutator was developed that reversed the connections as needed to produce a steady direct current. That invention made possible a practical direct current generator.

One of the first practical machines was invented by James J. Wood, a young factory foreman in Brooklyn. Then known as dynamos, such generators were exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial Fair of 1876, but the Bell telephone and Corliss stationary steam engine attracted greater public interest. Prof. Thomson was engaged by the Franklin Institute to survey and test a variety of generators prior to the purchase of one by the museum. Thomson produced an extensive catalog of the available designs which proved to be of great value to all of the pioneers. It was also necessary to use a steam engine that would perform well when connected to an electric generator. Speed control was vital as variation produced instability in the voltage and thus in the intensity of the light that was produced.

Those pioneer arc light systems of Brush and Thomson were the first of a new technology that transformed the interiors of institutions and large industrial and commercial establishments. Power was supplied by a lighting plant that consisted of an electric generator driven by a steam engine. Most were installed in basements; large institutions often used separate structures to isolate the noise and smoke. Arc lamps were limited to large spaces because the glow was much too brilliant for direct viewing in a confined area. A number of researchers sought to reproduce the soft glow of gas mantles in an electric light suitable for homes and offices.


Most of the efforts to develop an electric light suited to interior spaces entailed the use of a material heated to incandescence by internal resistance to the passage of the current. Thomas Edison, an inventor already famed for his phonograph, stock ticker, and telegraphy inventions, received the patent that was later recognized as primary. His first successful lamp was produced in October, 1879. Edison then developed a complete lighting system and announced a demonstration at his laboratory in Menlo Park, N.J. Held on New Year’s Eve; the public response was such that the Pennsylvania Railroad had to operate special trains to carry the throngs of visitors. In addition to lights in the buildings, the grounds were illuminated by lamps suspended from wires. Each lamp was rated at sixteen candlepower equivalent (c.p.) and consumed about 56 watts. The system operated at 110 volts, a pressure that simplified the design of generators, wires, and lamps.

With the Thomson report as a base, Edison directed his staff to develop a series of generators rated in size from seventy-five to two-hundred and fifty lamps. Edison lighting plants were soon in service not only in homes and offices, but also on ships and railroad cars. Competitors sold similar lamps and lighting systems, some of which infringed upon the Edison patent. Edison preferred to avoid litigation by allowing the marketplace to settle the issue. That approach failed, and extensive litigation later proved the Edison patent to be primary. Some of the contenders had valid claims. Joseph Swan of England invented the lamp independently, and Brush had obtained rights to the Swan patents in an effort to insure the continued viability of his company. In England, the Edison and Swan interests were combined in an enterprise named Ediswan.

Edison promoted his light with vigor; in 1884 the company sponsored an electric light parade down Fifth Avenue. Hidden generators on “floats” supplied a number of lamps on the hats and uniforms of the marchers, even the baton of the leader was adorned with a lamp!

The convenience and appearance of electric lighting was obvious to all, but was affordable only by the wealthy. Still, electric lighting was popular and the incandescent light found application in the better hotels and successful business establishments. The sound of throbbing steam engines represented progress to urban dwellers familiar with steam engines in factories. The elimination of noxious fumes from gas seemed a wonder; the nuisance of the plants a small price to pay for progress. Most were located in basements; the repair of such a plant was said to be the first work undertaken by the brilliant Serbian electrical scientist Nikola Tesla upon his arrival in New York. Observing the emanation of blue flashes and language of similar hue from a basement, Tesla found a man frustrated by a cantankerous generator. Familiar with the machine from his work in Europe, Tesla repaired the machine in short order and made a business contact that proved significant to his later endeavors.

As electric light became established, novelty items appeared. Festive electric lighting was introduced on the evening of Friday, December 22, 1882 when Edison associate Edward H. Johnson opened his home to visitors to display the world‘s first electrically lighted Christmas Tree. The leading trade journal, Electrical World, described in January of 1885 a Christmas tree in the home of Johnson. Festooned with small lamps of different colors that flashed sequentially as the tree was rotated by a motor in the base, it was a sensation of the day.

Brush, Edison, Thomson, and others anticipated a huge market for electric light service sold as a utility in the same manner as that by which gas, telegraph, and telephone services were provided. That required the development of a central station to generate power and a distribution system to supply individual customers. In that way the expense of construction and operation might be divided among thousands of users. Such public service required not only major financial investment but also substantial technical development. As the arc light companies enjoyed a substantial lead, those systems were the first to provide public service.

Photo by @mjb via flickr (CC-BY-NC-ND).