The Spark of Genius
Thomas Edison created the first light bulb 125 years ago. But he was not only America's greatest inventor. He was also a master entrepreneur
Luckily, Edison was worth around half a million dollars by then; Western Union had made big payments for his telegraph and telephone patents. Shuttling between Menlo Park and his grand new headquarters in a double brownstone mansion at 65 Fifth Avenue, Edison the industrialist organized a group of companies from 1880 to 1881, the progenitors of the modern Con Edison and General Electric. For his power station, Edison bought a couple of dilapidated warehouses at 25-257 Pearl Street within sight of the high towers of the unfinished Brooklyn Bridge. In December 1881, he began to dig up cobblestones for conduits radiating symmetrically outward from Pearl Street. He was often down in the trenches in the raw early hours checking the connections made by the wiring runners. It took six months to do the work.
Lights on. Sunday was normally the one day of the week reserved for his neglected wife, Mary, and their two children, but Sunday, Sept. 3, 1882, was different. All day and into the night Edison was on Pearl Street rehearsing every part of the operation for the system's debut due on Monday afternoon. So much might go wrong when he gave the orders for the steam to flow. "The gas companies were our bitter enemies, ready to pounce upon us at the slightest failure," he recalled later. When the chief electrician pulled the switch at 3 p.m., only one of the six dynamo sets worked and the steam engine was wobbly. But Edison, over at the offices of Drexel, Morgan & Co., ready for the big moment when he would ceremonially connect the 106 lamps there, was not disappointed. They all came on! They came on, too, at the offices of the New York Times, "in fairy tale style," said the paper, 52 filaments appearing to glow stronger as the night drew in.
Edison's success was at once a vindication and an incitement. His patent was swiftly challenged, his ideas stolen. But Edison would not sue; he would out-invent and undersell them all. When Pearl Street went on line in 1882, no fewer than 200 companies across America had already signed up with the Edison Company for Isolated Lighting, using 45,000 lamps a day: companies like Marshall Field's dry goods store in Chicago, George Eastman's Photographic company in Rochester, N.Y., the Stetson Hat Co. in Philadelphia, and Dillard's Oregon Railway and Navigation Co. The electrical evangelists Edison had sent overseas had done their work well. A London newspaper summed up the acclaim: "There is but one Edison."