delanceyplace.com 10/05/07 - new toys for the wealthy

In today's excerpt - electricity for Vanderbilt and Morgan. In 1882, as residents of Manhattan were waiting for electricity to be deployed to their homes from Thomas Edison's central power plant, the wealthiest residents decided they could not wait and paid to have their own 'miniplants' installed:

"As engines of publicity, the miniplants potentially could help most when they became highly sought after by the wealthy for use in their own homes. ... William Vanderbilt was the first to place an order for his own personal power plant and lighting system for installation at his house under construction on upper Fifth Avenue. ... Edison was present on the evening that the system was turned on for the first time. The test went well, and Vanderbilt, his wife, and his daughters joined Edison in the main parlor, admiring the light. Almost immediately, however, signs appeared of a smoldering fire within the wallpaper, which apparently had a fine metallic thread in its weave. Edison ordered the system shut down and was pleased that no flames had appeared. Mrs. Vanderbilt, however, 'became hysterical' according to Edison. ... On her orders, the entire system was removed.

"The unhappy ending to this first installation swiftly became public knowledge, and the gas utilities were glad to help spread the news. ... When asked whether it was true that Vanderbilt had ordered Edison's electric lights to be removed from his new house because they did not work well—and had set fire to the woodwork—Edison declared, 'It is false.' ...

"Undeterred by Vanderbilt's unhappy experience, J.P. Morgan wanted Edison to build a system of lights and self-contained power plant for his house, too, at 219 Madison Avenue. ... The power plant was staffed with its own full-time engineer ... [who] completed his shift at 11 p.m., a fact members of the Morgan household sometimes forgot when the house was plunged into darkness in the middle of a late-evening card game. ...

"Morgan prized being ahead of everyone else ... [however] on the first evening when the lights were turned on, there was a flash, followed by a fire that quickly engulfed his desk and spread across the rug before being put out. ... [it was] expected that when Morgan appeared, he would angrily denounce that the services of Edison Electric were no longer needed. ... [However] the eager purchaser of first-generation technology handled setbacks with equanimity. 'I hope that the Edison Company appreciates the value of my house as an experimental station', he would later say. A new installation with second-generation equipment worked well, and Morgan held a reception for four hundred guests to show off his electric lights. The event led some guests to place their own orders for similar installations."

author: Randall Stross
title: The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World
publisher: Three Rivers Press
date: Copyright 2007 by Randall E. Stross
pages: 129-132