The impetus that led to Edison's work in Brockton initially emanated from the highly significant technical and economic problems he had long been experiencing with his 2-wire stations in In Europe. It also evolved out of some of the menacing problems he continued to have with similar - but also "far from complete" - facilities he was trying toperfect in London, England, Appleton, Wisconsin, Sunbury, Pennsylvania and New York City.
Even though the mass-produced "free" light bulbs Edison felt obliged to provide his earliest customers at this time had attained a relatively high level of efficiency and durability, the relatively unsafe, crude and inflexible means by which current was still being produced and distributed left a very great deal to be desired. More than occasionally, for example, wire resistance, fuse problems and accompanying voltage drops in the New York facility - which had to be very carefully monitored and constantly "tweaked" by electricians - were resulting in "black days." Meanwhile, as both customers and workers were sometimes being injured - if not actually killed - by flaws in the New York system, his light bulbs - vs. the above systemic imperfections relating to the economic and safe generation and distribution of electricity - were being incorrectly perceived as the primary culprit....
It should be noted here, that an unfortunate personal shortcoming of this period in Edison's career was that, even though he clearly knew better, he decided to allow his Edison Construction Company to promote his still far from perfect New York plant as an entirely viable model for world-wide commercial use. But even with its truly marvelous "Jumbo" generator, underground wiring, etc., it possessed most of the same pretensions inherent in all of his previous 2-wire feeder operations..
Significantly, until Edison designed his Brockton, Massachusetts operation, all of his previous plants were fundamentally experimental - and incapable of transmitting economically viable quantities of electrical power for more than a couple of thousand feet from their respective generating stations. Moreover, he was fully aware that none of them were then capable of servicing the unique configuration patterns of the vast majority of the communities that were then rapidly emerging throughout the modern world.
In fact, the challenge of perfecting a centralized system that would bepractically anduniversally satisfactory to all of humanityat this time was so great that some of Edison's sophisticated economic backers tried to convince him to maintain his upon enhancing his already successful isolated (on-site) 3-wire operations....
Fortunately, this incertitude was marvelously eradicated when the irrepressible inventor came up with the design for his first standardized, centralized 3-wirefeeder system - in Brockton.
Unfortunately, while Edison's development of his Brockton fait accompli were of heroic proportion, it was during this period in his life that he was being hammered at every turn by fiercest types of critics and cutthroat competitors imagineable. Also during this most prolific period of his career, he was constantly plagued by the illness and impending death of his beloved wife.
Meanwhile, as reporters from prominent newspapers - including the New York Times - were gleefully lampooning him and eminent scientists were still questioning his ability to come up with a truly viable substitute for the gas lighting industry, the shrewd owners of the latter organizations were constantly trying to find ways to divert, undermine, and, or, co-opt him.
But while most men would have been rattled by these circumstances, this implacable young genius remained sharply focused upon his short term goals and his long range mission. A related quote from Volume 134 of Edison's 3,400 diaries reveals the extraordinary intensity of his commitment in the following terse manner: "Object, ....to effect imitation of all done by gas, so as to replace lighting by gas by lighting by electricity...."
Passionately dedicated to capturing the world market for electricity, it is not surprising that Edison remained doggedly obsessed with making a popular success out of his humongous 2-wire experiment in the Pearl Street section of lower New York City.
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(EDITOR'S NOTE:) Most likely, it would not have greatly surprised Edison to learn that with more than a ten trillion kilowatts per year of current output, electricity is the most consumed commercial product in existence. In the U.S. alone, for example, there are presently over 10, 000 central power plants producing over a quarter of a trillion dollars worth of electricity per year. )
At any rate, in July of 1882, a few months before Edison officially opened his far from complete "Manhattan leviathan" - in what was then the worst slum section in town - he was suddenly confronted by the most competitivechallengeof his career....
Similar to what frequently happens to rivals in the current rapidly changing world of electronics, a British scientist/educator by the name of Dr. Joseph Hopkinson announced he had discovered a fundamentally new and better method of "making and delivering" electricity. It turned out that he had been hired to make a formal evaluation of Edison's first attempt to establish a commercialfacility in London, but had also been covertly doing a lot of "fooling around" with it. (Editor's note: A good deal of Edison's work in his famous New York plant was based upon the commercial theories and technology he had worked out in this preceding London facility.)
The essence of Hopkins’ claim was that his overarching 3-wire concept represented a dramatic improvement over the Edison system of parallel 2-wire feeder circuitry.... Specifically, he claimed that, along with Edison's state-of-the-art feeders and transformers, such multiple wiring could safely deliver both low, andrelatively high, voltage to 16 times more area than any of Edison's existing systems He also guaranteed it would eliminate over 60% of the copper wire that was then being "wasted" in all such facilities, producing much lower overhead in running a centralized plant.
While Hopkins' former claim, may have been the most astonishing and threatening, Edison and his cohorts did not take the latter allegation lightly. At the time, the United States was still years away from developing its own copper mines and a "cabal" of French speculators was seriously threatening to corner the world's copper market.
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Meanwhile, Germany's great inventor, Woerner Seimen's, was not only tinkering with his own version of a safe, commercial three-wire system, he was also working on developing an "artificial" method of inexpensively producing copper out of chemical solutions....
Making a long story very short, Edison now forged one of the sweetest deals in history when he co-opted Hopkins 3-wire technology for himself and the Edison Illuminating Light Corporation, and combined it with the latest in feeder and transformer technology....
Interestingly, even though this shrewd acquisition would prevent his formerly "wildly ambitious" goal of electrifying the world from being brought to fruition by Englishmen, he was forced to waver on employing it in New York. One of the reasons for this was that his beleaguered supporters and crews had already installed over 60 tons of the "old" type of 2-wire wiring (or 90% of the planned total of 70,000 feet) beneath the streets of this city. Another factor was that his experiments in validating three-wire technology still needed a good deal of "practical perfecting."
The main reason for his equivocation, however, was that - even though he realized his "copper-bound Manhattan behemoth" was already outmoded by 3-wire feeder and transformer technology - Edison's chief investors were in no mood to spend any more money or waste any more time in completely reconstructing this seminal operation.
So as gas and arc-light industry "sharks" continued to sniff at New York's free wheeling and contentious business atmosphere - hoping to catch the scent of the upstart inventor's blood - Edison and his advisors countered by maintaining that his 2-wire operation on Pearl Street was already a "complete success."
Convinced that even limited efficacy in this important metropolis would command world-wide publicity, he specifically followed the advice of his noted public relations expert, William J. Hammer, and engendered the basically false impression that "everythingthat could possibly be accomplished in perfecting universal centralized electricity was already nearing completion in New York City."
Meanwhile, neither the press, the public, nor most of Edison's financiers (excepting the omniscient J. Pierpoint Morgan) were aware that he had committed himself to concurrently developing - elsewhere- a far more efficient and competent little standardized 3-wire underground alternative to his New York facility.
Amazingly, from late 1882 through early 1883, Edison not only exerted a great deal of energy upon developing his 2-wire New York facility, and in patenting several significant unrelated ideas ,but in conquering the myriad of problems associated with 3-wire technology.
As for the latter concern, he specifically blended Hopkins’ revolutionary 3-wire concept with the equally dramatic breakthroughs in 3-wire feeder and transformer technology that were being concurrently achieved by his brilliant engineer/assistant, Frank Sprague.
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The remarkable outcome was the first successful network of parallel supply conductors to incorporate feeders produced the world's first genuinely "smart grid" in Brockton. Meanwhile, during this most intense and creative period of his life, Edison finally perfected the high resistance bulbs required by his combined relatively low tension (110-220) dual volt 3-wire system.
Remarkably, during this time, Edison also applied for what was - and still stands - as not only "the greatest number of electrical generation and distribution patents anyone ever produced, but the greatest number of patents of all types ever issued to any individual or corporation within a span of six months...."
Having finally completed the design of his "first perfect and entirely safe and practical" system for manufacturing and distributing electricity - and having thoroughly tested its superseding concepts in his fantastic seminal R and D lab in New Jersey - Edison now began to tailor it to meet the exact needs of the highly progressive little model city of Brockton, Massachusetts... (Editor's note: Prior to this, he had designed his first 3-wire on site system for two of the scores of shoe factories that were located Brockton: the soon-to-become world's leader in the boot and shoe making industry." Of course he soon determined that they did not work with anything near the ultimate efficiency of Brockton's coinciding centralized 3-wire plant. In fact they were only as efficient as the popular isolated 2-wire systems of the day.)
Before proceeding, the author fully acknowledges - and indeed strongly emphasizes - that at this time in Edison's highly emotion charged life, he not only exploited what Hopkinson had been doing with centralized three-wire technology in London, but he took similar "advantage" of the expertise of many of his employees. For example, he never felt constrained to apologize for what some claim amounted to literally "stealing" the creativity of his mathematician, Francis Upton; his engineer, West Point educated Frank Sprague; the esteemed electrician, Nicola Tesla; and many others....
But before making an overly prompt and harsh judgment on the matter, the reader should take note that Edison was not acting any different from the way the majority of Corporate R & D types operate today, especially towards those whom they employ.
Moreover, during the rough and tumble laissez-faire capitalistic days of the 19th Century - which look mild in comparison to Sterling's writings about "law and disorder" in today's world of electronics - numerous jealous and (or) ravenous individuals were doing the very same sort of things to him....
In any case, by the time of the onset of his beloved wife's mortal illness, Edison's megawatt brain was being treated by the gas industry and most of his other competitors as "fair game for the picking…." For example, in 1881 and 1882, a crooked patent lawyer managed to "swindle" what amounted to over a year's worth of his critically important research....
Quite characteristically, Edison accepted this setback with aplomb. While the unsavory incident may have made him more suspicious than ever of the intentions of those around him, he always recalled it - and the fact that the rascal planned to patent more than seventy of his inventions under his own name - with far more humor than rancor. In fact, once he had determined that the thief was in terrible financial straits, that his family was destitute, and that he had probably resorted to the despicable act in order to survive, Edison dismissed all thoughts of suing the scoundrel.
Of course, there were many other young "Turks" in Edison's midst who, in one way or another, found ways to exploit him and, or, one up him.... The most famous example, of course, centers around Tesla's and Westinghouse's noted work with bi-polar transmission, which eventually spooked Edison into overreacting relative to his alleged "sole preference" for the development of direct current....
Au contraire! Edison initially did a great deal of experimenting with AC in his earliest systems. But because he had not yet invented a transformer, he had scores of empirical reasons to be justly fearful of its potential danger to the public....
Edison's "ruthless exploitation" of the ingenious Frank Sprague, however, is different matter and an especially interesting related story. First, if Edison had not benefited from the expertise of this brilliant young engineer/mathematician at the time he was dealing with the Hopkins challenge, he would have probably not been the first to transcend the empirical stage of profit-oriented centralized electrical power on a global scale.... After all, it was Sprague's creativity in developing a system of automatically controlling the voltage in Edison's erratic 2-wire feeder methodology at this time and harmoniously incorporating it into Brockton's three-wire system that was the key factor in Edison's ultimate success in providing safe and economic centralized electricity to all.... Nevertheless - as will be detailed later - even though Sprague was one of Edison's most trusted employees, he was taking as much advantage of Edison as Edison was taking advantage of him.....
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In any case, on January 30, 1883, Edison formally signed the historic first contract to construct a 3-wire system. Eight months later, on Oct. 1, 1883, this rapidly evolving technology was formally culminated in the plant he constructed in Brockton's village center....
Among the numerous high-powered electrical experts of the day who attended the Brockton opening were the famous William Insull - who had himself long been interested in making electricity available to everyone. Also on hand, was Germany's great Woerner Siemens, who, as indicated earlier, had not only been independently involved in dabbling with 3-wire theory, but was equally involved in the already well established DC and AC arc lighting industry.
Another important attendee was Elihu Thomson, who was destined to soon establish the Westinghouse Corporation up in Lynn, Massachusetts. While the sad story of how Edison lost out to Westinghouse will be detailed later, it should be noted here that Thompson was the noted pioneer in the arc lighting industry who had boldly stated only a few months earlier that "If Edison's existing (two-wire) power plants were ever to become widely accepted, they would promptly consume the world's relatively meager supply of copper...." Of course, most American and European experts heartily agreed with him.
Although Thomson had avoided attending the opening of Edison's New York facility a year earlier - because he realized it possessed no remarkable advantages over the previous commercial plant Edison had built in London and because he still lacked confidence in the practicality of Edison's 2-wire feeder system - hesuddenly took great interest in what going on in Brockton. Along with other skeptics of the day, he now realized that a genuine breakthrough in power transmission and distribution vs. the steam engines that had been notoriously unsuccessful in smoothly transferring energy for more than a few hundred feet via steam pipes, drive shafts, and clumsy belts, etc. was imminent in Brockton. Meanwhile, he and many of his cohorts were articulating that the "centralized" electrical technology that Edison had been testing in his New York plant, however marvelous, had still not produced any hard evidence that sub-regional clusters of "isolated" generators weren't a better energy option for cities than centralized power plants....
Thompson's skepticism was further exacerbated by the fact that - even as late as August of 1883 - Edison was occasionally heard muttering to himself that that on-site electrical generators for producing both light and power "may still have the best chance of ultimately winning out over the idea of centralized commercial generation and distribution."
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Significantly, the success of Brockton's premier "village system" settled this issue. Not only were the astute witnesses who first came to see it amazed to see how well it "harmoniously integrated Edison's latest mass-produced components, they were "electrified" by its potential to ultimately safely and inexpensively power all of the factories, offices and homes in the city up to four milesfrom the central station and thus eventually provide every structure that lay within its 30 square mile of area with unlimited energy from an ingenious complex of 3-wire 110v/220v feeder, transformer and booster systems...."
In sharp contrast to the financial challenges still being faced by the New York City operation - which didn't turn a legitimate profit for five more years - experts quickly realized that the lean and mean "Brockton 3-wire design" would soon be able to generate and sustain substantial profits. Managed by as few as three men, and featuring a per-bulb charge of only 12 cents per Kilowatt hour - which was considerably less than the ever-changing calculations being reported out of New York City - it is no wonder that Brockton model station had financial appeal. Not only did it figure to eventually reap lots of cash in powering downtown areas of countless similar emerging cities throughout the world, it also sported the potential for making a "ton of money" from powering the factories, residential areas, and farms that were traditionally concentrically located around such medium sized cities.
Another of its important feature of the Brockton facility was its beautifully simple and clean architectural design, which was sure to appeal to countless similar emerging cities and towns throughout the world.... Dramatically contrasting with the drab architecture of Edison's forbidding fourth profit-oriented "money pit," in a renovated soap factory in lower Manhattan, the heart ofthis "avante guarde" operation was sited at the very center of the Brockton's prominent City Hall Square. (Interestingly, unlike the New York plant - which was destroyed over a hundred years ago - Brockton's historic plant still stands.... and remains a huge potential asset to this city... See Figure 12.)
Of related interest, many of the venture capitalists who came to witness the operation of the early Brockton station promptly realized its speculative benefits. They were especially impressed, for example, by its improved methods of charging and billing for electrical service. Dramatically aware that, since its inception nine months earlier, the Edison Illuminating Company of New York had remained in a financial bind (In fact Edison didn't feel confident enough to send his first invoice to a New York City customer - in the amount of $50.00 - until Jan. 18, 1883 - and was still years away from declaring a dividend,) they much appreciated the fact that the Brockton Edison Illuminating Light's remarkable new three-wire feeder system looked so slick it was never going to be obliged to hand out free bulbs or free service to its customers.