For description of feeder patent see Appendix.
It should be borne in mind that from the outset Edison had determined upon installing underground conductors as the only permanent and satisfactory method for the distribution of current from central stations in cities; and that at Menlo Park he laid out and operated such a system with about four hundred and twenty-five lamps. The underground system there was limited to the immediate vicinity of the laboratory and was somewhat crude, as well as much less complicated than would be the network of over eighty thousand lineal feet, which he calculated to be required for the underground circuits in the first district of New York City. At Menlo Park no effort was made for permanency; no provision was needed in regard to occasional openings of the street for various purposes; no new customers were to be connected from time to time to the mains, and no repairs were within contemplation. In New York the question of permanency was of paramount importance, and the other contingencies were sure to arise as well as conditions more easy to imagine than to forestall. These problems were all attacked in a resolute, thoroughgoing manner, and one by one solved by the invention of new and unprecedented devices that were adequate for the purposes of the time, and which are embodied in apparatus of slight modification in use up to the present day.
Just what all this means it is hard for the present generation to imagine. New York and all the other great cities in 1882, and for some years thereafter, were burdened and darkened by hideous masses of overhead wires carried on ugly wooden poles along all the main thoroughfares. One after another rival telegraph and telephone, stock ticker, burglar-alarm, and other companies had strung their circuits without any supervision or restriction; and these wires in all conditions of sag or decay ramified and crisscrossed in every direction, often hanging broken and loose-ended for months, there being no official compulsion to remove any dead wire. None of these circuits carried dangerous currents; but the introduction of the arc light brought an entirely new menace in the use of pressures that were even worse than the bully of the West who "kills on sight," because this kindred peril was invisible, and might lurk anywhere. New poles were put up, and the lighting circuits on them, with but a slight insulation of cotton impregnated with some "weather-proof" compound, straggled all over the city exposed to wind and rain and accidental contact with other wires, or with the metal of buildings. So many fatalities occurred that the insulated wire used, called "underwriters," because approved by the insurance bodies, became jocularly known as "undertakers," and efforts were made to improve its protective qualities. Then came the overhead circuits for distributing electrical energy to motors for operating elevators, driving machinery, etc., and these, while using a lower, safer potential, were proportionately larger. There were no wires underground. Morse had tried that at the very beginning of electrical application, in telegraphy, and all agreed that renewals of the experiment were at once costly and foolish. At last, in cities like New York, what may be styled generically the "overhead system" of wires broke down under its own weight; and various methods of underground conductors were tried, hastened in many places by the chopping down of poles and wires as the result of some accident that stirred the public indignation. One typical tragic scene was that in New York, where, within sight of the City Hall, a lineman was killed at his work on the arc light pole, and his body slowly roasted before the gaze of the excited populace, which for days afterward dropped its silver and copper coin into the alms-box nailed to the fatal pole for the benefit of his family. Out of all this in New York came a board of electrical control, a conduit system, and in the final analysis the Public Service Commission, that is credited to Governor Hughes as the furthest development of utility corporation control.
The "road to yesterday" back to Edison and his insistence on underground wires is a long one, but the preceding paragraph traces it. Even admitting that the size and weight of his low-tension conductors necessitated putting them underground, this argues nothing against the propriety and sanity of his methods. He believed deeply and firmly in the analogy between electrical supply and that for water and gas, and pointed to the trite fact that nobody hoisted the water and gas mains into the air on stilts, and that none of the pressures were inimical to human safety. The arc-lighting methods were unconsciously and unwittingly prophetic of the latter-day long-distance transmissions at high pressure that, electrically, have placed the energy of Niagara at the command of Syracuse and Utica, and have put the power of the falling waters of the Sierras at the disposal of San Francisco, two hundred miles away. But within city limits overhead wires, with such space-consuming potentials, are as fraught with mischievous peril to the public as the dynamite stored by a nonchalant contractor in the cellar of a schoolhouse. As an offset, then, to any tendency to depreciate the intrinsic value of Edison's lighting work, let the claim be here set forth modestly and subject to interference, that he was the father of under- ground wires in America, and by his example outlined the policy now dominant in every city of the first rank. Even the comment of a cynic in regard to electrical development may be accepted: "Some electrical companies wanted all the air; others apparently had use for all the water; Edison only asked for the earth."
The late Jacob Hess, a famous New York Republican politician, was a member of the commission appointed to put the wires underground in New York City, in the "eighties." He stated that when the commission was struggling with the problem, and examining all kinds of devices and plans, patented and unpatented, for which fabulous sums were often asked, the body turned to Edison in its perplexity and asked for advice. Edison said: "All you have to do, gentlemen, is to insulate your wires, draw them through the cheapest thing on earth--iron pipe--run your pipes through channels or galleries under the street, and you've got the whole thing done." This was practically the system adopted and in use to this day. What puzzled the old politician was that Edison would accept nothing for his advice.
Another story may also be interpolated here as to the underground work done in New York for the first Edison station. It refers to the "man higher up," although the phrase had not been coined in those days of lower public morality. That a corporation should be "held up" was accepted philosophically by the corporation as one of the unavoidable incidents of its business; and if the corporation "got back" by securing some privilege without paying for it, the public was ready to condone if not applaud. Public utilities were in the making, and no one in particular had a keen sense of what was right or what was wrong, in the hard, practical details of their development. Edison tells this illuminating story: "When I was laying tubes in the streets of New York, the office received notice from the Commissioner of Public Works to appear at his office at a certain hour. I went up there with a gentleman to see the Commissioner, H. O. Thompson. On arrival he said to me: `You are putting down these tubes. The Department of Public Works requires that you should have five inspectors to look after this work, and that their salary shall be $5 per day, payable at the end of each week. Good-morning.' I went out very much crestfallen, thinking I would be delayed and harassed in the work which I was anxious to finish, and was doing night and day. We watched patiently for those inspectors to appear. The only appearance they made was to draw their pay Saturday afternoon."
Just before Christmas in 1880--December 17--as an item for the silk stocking of Father Knickerbocker --the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York was organized. In pursuance of the policy adhered to by Edison, a license was issued to it for the exclusive use of the system in that territory--Manhattan Island--in consideration of a certain sum of money and a fixed percentage of its capital in stock for the patent rights. Early in 1881 it was altogether a paper enterprise, but events moved swiftly as narrated already, and on June 25, 1881, the first "Jumbo" prototype of the dynamo-electric machines to gen- erate current at the Pearl Street station was put through its paces before being shipped to Paris to furnish new sensations to the flaneur of the boulevards. A number of the Edison officers and employees assembled at Goerck Street to see this "gigantic" machine go into action, and watched its performance with due reverence all through the night until five o'clock on Sunday morning, when it respected the conventionalities by breaking a shaft and suspending further tests. After this dynamo was shipped to France, and its successors to England for the Holborn Viaduct plant, Edison made still further improvements in design, increasing capacity and economy, and then proceeded vigorously with six machines for Pearl Street.
An ideal location for any central station is at the very centre of the district served. It may be questioned whether it often goes there. In the New York first district the nearest property available was a double building at Nos. 255 and 257 Pearl Street, occupying a lot so by 100 feet. It was four stories high, with a fire-wall dividing it into two equal parts. One of these parts was converted for the uses of the station proper, and the other was used as a tube-shop by the underground construction department, as well as for repair-shops, storage, etc. Those were the days when no one built a new edifice for station purposes; that would have been deemed a fantastic extravagance. One early station in New York for arc lighting was an old soap-works whose well-soaked floors did not need much additional grease to render them choice fuel for the inevitable flames. In this Pearl Street instance, the building, erected originally for commercial uses, was quite incapable of sustaining the weight of the heavy dynamos and steam-engines to be installed on the second floor; so the old flooring was torn out and a new one of heavy girders supported by stiff columns was substituted. This heavy construction, more familiar nowadays, and not unlike the supporting metal structure of the Manhattan Elevated road, was erected independent of the enclosing walls, and occupied the full width of 257 Pearl Street, and about three-quarters of its depth. This change in the internal arrangements did not at all affect the ugly external appearance, which did little to suggest the stately and ornate stations since put up by the New York Edison Company, the latest occupying whole city blocks.