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Promoting Edison's Lamp

"Dispatch received this morning from steamer Columbia states she arrived safe in Rio and that the Edison light is all right."
(Charles Mott, 31 May 1880)

Edison's business sense has been questioned over the years. However, he understood well the need to promote new inventions, and displayed keen salesmanship. He was never too busy to talk to reporters or to demonstrate inventions to lab visitors. Edison Company representatives traveled around the country and the world participating in shows and expositions.

The New Year's Eve demonstration at Menlo Park (31 December 1879) became the first in a series of promotional events, all designed to link Edison's name with the new lighting technology in the public's mind.


S.S. Columbia

SS Columbia illustrations from Scientific American, 1880
S.S. Columbia
S.I. image #79-2134

Oregon Railway and Navigation Company president Henry Villard attended the New Year's Eve demonstration and became an instant Edison enthusiast. (He later became president of Edison General Electric Company.) Villard boldly decided to purchase an Edison lighting system for a new steamship, the S. S. Columbia, then under construction for his company.

Not everyone believed that installing the new technology on the ship was prudent. Edison himself apparently showed some reluctance, wanting to concentrate on his idea of centrally generated power and not "isolated" power plants. Villard persisted however, and Edison came to view the job as an opportunity for promoting the new system. The Columbia installation became the first commercial order for Edison's light bulb.

The ship was launched in February 1880 and sailed to New York where the electrical equipment was installed. In May the ship took on cargo and sailed for Portland, Oregon, a trip of about 10 weeks around South America. The installation proved both technically and promotionally successful: the equipment functioned properly and the press reported the story. Scientific American published an extensive article about the system, including the illustration above.


Hinds, Ketcham

Switch from Hinds-Ketcham installation, 1881
Switch from Hinds, Ketcham & Co.
S.I. image #79-9466.12

Edison's first commercial installation on land was purchased by printers Hinds, Ketcham & Co. Like the Columbia installation, this was an "isolated" plant, meaning that the electricity came from a generator in the basement of the building, not a central power station. The New York City location permitted those interested in buying (or investing in) Edison equipment the opportunity to see the product in commercial use. The company's lights went on in January 1881. Around 1900 the installation was upgraded, and the switch seen here (and other objects) were donated to the Smithsonian.


Trade Shows & Expositions

William Hammer's design for a flashing sign, 1881
"Edison" electric sign
S.I. image #2003-35552

In the era before newsreels, radio, or television, large events such as world's fairs and technology expositions were important venues for promoting new inventions. Edison had shown telegraphic inventions at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition and knew the value of this type of product exposure. Edison exhibits appeared in American shows (Philadelphia, Cincinnati, 1888) and in European shows (Paris, London, 1881; Vienna, 1882).

William J. Hammer, one of Edison's Menlo Park assistants, played a major role in showing the Edison product in these expositions. The sketch seen here is his design for "the first electric sign," which he developed for the Crystal Palace Exposition in London.


Holborn Viaduct

Diagram of the Holborn Viaduct installation, 1882
Holborn Viaduct
S.I. image #79-2132

Edison modeled his lighting system on the existing system of gas lighting. This model featured a centrally located supply of energy which users tapped through a system of pipes. He believed this concept of centralized supply necessary to make his system economical, and envisioned an underground distribution system of cables to carry electricity from generating stations to end users.

Gaining permission to dig up city streets took time, especially with gas suppliers trying to keep the new competitor out of the lighting business. Edison's representatives in London, eager to demonstrate a central system, found a way around the issue by proposing to run electric lines under the Holborn Viaduct. The location had the added advantage of being near Fleet Street, home to various newspaper offices.

The temporary installation began service in January 1882 and operated until 1884–long enough to prove that the concept was technically feasible. It also provided a testing ground for Edison's first permanent station, planned for New York.


Pearl Street

Scale model of the Pearl Street Station made in 1928
Pearl Street Station model
S.I. image #10,501

Edison constructed a full-scale, central generating station in New York City as a focal point for further promotional efforts and a clear demonstration that his electric lighting system worked. In addition to the light bulb, he had invented numerous additional items necessary for the system, including especially a meter (to measure how much electricity the customer used) and an improved generator.

The site for Edison's generating station had to satisfy both engineering and business needs. Using 100 volt direct current to power the new light bulbs resulted in a practical limitation–customers could be no further than ½ mile from the generator. To promote the system, a high profile location was called for. Edison chose a site in the heart of New York's financial district, 255 and 257 Pearl Street. On 4 September 1882, he threw a switch in the office of one of his main investors, J. Pierpont Morgan, and initiated service to the area.

Financially, the station's performance was mediocre. Costs were higher than anticipated, and the station did not make a profit for about five years. The experience gained at Pearl Street served Edison's purposes well, however. Responding to high copper prices, for example, Edison designed a three-wire distribution system that brought substantial savings to subsequent installations.

As a technical demonstration that Edison's system could function, the station proved a resounding success. Edison's financial backers, content with growing sales of stand-alone "isolated" generating plants, urged caution in promoting central station power–they wanted to see Pearl Street in operation first. Satisfied with the station's performance, they began licensing central systems throughout the U.S. By the end of the 1880s, dozens of Edison companies were in business.

A fire caused extensive damage to the Pearl Street station in 1890, but Edison and his men worked around the clock for 11 days to restore service. The station was taken out of service and dismantled in 1895, and the building sold and later demolished. The New York Edison Company placed a commemorative plaque at the site in 1917.

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