Celebrating Thomas Edison’s 130 Year-old Invention

Drawing of Pearl Street Station [source-Wikipedia]

Drawing of Pearl Street Station [source-Wikipedia]

In early September 1882, Thomas Edison culminated three year’s worth of inventive work to demonstrate his Pearl Street electric generating station in lower Manhattan [near the East River]. Originally having one generator and serving 40 electric lamps at 85 customer sites, the station grew by 1884 to have multiple generators serving 10,164 lamps at 508 customer sites. The electric utility industry was born 130 years ago.

Edison and his team designed a new rugged dynamo, the largest ever built, for use at Pearl Street. Nicknamed the “Jumbo”, each of the six units installed weighed 27 tons; and came equipped with a ten foot armature shaft, and capable of producing 100 kilowatts. Each dynamo was driven by a steam engine, which received steam from boilers located in another part of the plant. The Pearl Street plant was designed as a 600 kilowatt station and served an area of about one square mile. Today’s typical large utility generators turn-out 500-1,000 MW of power [1 MW = 1,000,000 watts]. It’s a very different and highly energy intensive world. In the typical New Jersey home in 1940, a home would have used about 700 kWh of energy for the whole year. Today, that same home consumes over 7500 kWh, a factor of ten more in total annual electric energy use.

Drawing of Pearl Street Station [source-Wikipedia]

Drawing of Pearl Street Station [source-Wikipedia]

What often is lost in discussions of the early utility system is the need for Edison and his staff to literally design, create, engineer, and implement every major component of that system-an inventive fugue that resulted in somewhere between 300 and 400 patents; including….generators, wires, switches, light sockets, meters, fuses, lamps, junction boxes….etc. Pearl Street station used a classic two wire distribution system. Edison also had to open a school to train his workers how to make the necessary cable installations under the busy New York City streets, and to make reliable connections from the cables to each customer. His fuel choice to power his steam boilers was coal. At his legendary West Orange, NJ Labs, built in 1887, Edison would install upgraded equipment to that at Pearl Street, powering the labs and also his home, located a scant half-mile away.

Underground distribution cable cross-section [source-IEEE]

Underground distribution cable cross-section [source-IEEE]

Edison workers busy installing the first utility grid in the streets of New York [source- http://theboweryboys.blogspot.com/2011/12/electric-new-york-from-gaslight-to.html]

Edison workers busy installing the first utility grid in the streets of New York [source- http://theboweryboys.blogspot.com/2011/12/electric-new-york-from-gaslight-to.html]

 

Today the U.S. electric utility industry is approaching $400 billion in annual revenue. Worldwide, utility revenues are about four times as large. National total utility power station capacity today is in excess of 1.1 million MW; using a variety of fuel forms—coal, natural gas, oil, hydro, nuclear and now solar and wind energy sources. Edison certainly would welcome the use of solar and wind resources, having been a big fan of the then emerging renewable technologies in the 1920s.……”I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”

Upon his death in 1931, well-meaning officials discussed shutting off the electric power to honor Edison’s achievements. They soon realized how dangerous that would be; and how absolutely necessary electric service was to our nation and safety. From 1882 to 1931, just 49 years, electricity made incredible market penetration in our world and to this day, it is the mainstay of our standard of living. Edison, the man who brought light and convenient and cheap electricity into our lives.

Thomas Edison on Time MagazineThomas Edison said … “My desire is to do everything within my power to free people from drudgery and create the largest measure of happiness and prosperity.”

Time ® is a registered trademark of Time Inc.

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