Architect of Power
Thomas E. Murray & New York’s Electrical System
The inventors and pioneers of electrical systems are well documented, but little has been written about those entrepreneurs who brought electric power within the reach of the general public. One who stands out among his peers is Thomas E. Murray (1860–1929, see Figure 1). As an executive, engineer, and inventor, Murray’s work shaped the utility system of New York City, yet he remains largely unknown as he shunned publicity because of his deeply held religious beliefs.
Murray was responsible for the design and construction of nine power stations in New York City, most of which continued to operate well into the second half of the 20th century. Though great achievements in their own right, the stations tend to overshadow Murray’s contributions as an industry leader and inventor. At various times, sometimes simultaneously, he held the position of vice president and/or general manager of most of the major power companies that supplied the city in the early decades of the 20th century. There he was able to direct development and also to apply his inventive talents to areas ripe for innovation. Rarely has any one individual impacted an entire industry so extensively.
From a background of very limited means in Albany, New York, Murray was largely self-taught in mechanics and electricity. Brought to the attention of Anthony N. Brady, a financier and utility magnate in that city, Murray participated in the installation of the first electric light systems there. When Brady sought to bring order to the welter of electric companies that held franchises in New York City, Murray became his technical advisor and ultimately the lead figure in the reorganization plan.
Murray entered the New York City arena in the mid-1890s, a time when the fledgling utility companies employed inefficient localized power stations. As a result, power was expensive, and 775 privately owned power plants, many serving just one customer, were in operation in Manhattan and the Bronx as of the beginning of 1898. The promise of large-scale generation and transmission had been demonstrated by the hydroelectric installation at Niagara Falls in western New York, but none of the New York City companies were able to finance major construction.
The only practical solution was a merger of the power companies to create a market base of sufficient strength to amortize large-scale projects. Brady set about reaching that goal while Murray took on the development of large alternating current (ac) power stations to supplant the small direct current (dc) plants in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Brooklyn, the first to be reorganized, was also the first to have a major power station. The Kings County Electric Light and Power Company opened the Gold Street station in May 1900. Located near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, it supplied power to the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of Brooklyn.
In Manhattan, the task was more complex as a series of mergers had already begun while plans for a new station were being developed. The project, named Waterside for its location on 38th Street and the East River, was directed by Murray with Edison Electric Illuminating Company engineers John Lieb and John Van Vleck in charge of construction. By the time the plant began operating in October 1901, corporate amalgamation had created the New York Edison Company, a subsidiary of the Consolidated Gas Company.
Even then, Murray’s range of activity was wide, for he had designed simultaneously another station, commonly known as the “Central,” located on the Gowanus Canal. This station began operation in March 1901 to supplant small dc stations that powered the elevated and street railway companies held by the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company. All three of Murray’s initial ac stations were similar, having been built around steam engine/generator sets. All supplied 25-Hz, three-phase power at 6,600 V to the substations that provided dc power to the end users.
Transit lines were universally dc for the simplicity of distribution and the load characteristics of dc series motors. At that time, electric power for general residential, commercial, and industrial customers in urban areas of dense load was also dc. Such use of dc current made possible the use of battery reserves for peak demand, while dc motors were highly developed and dc distribution systems were in place. The employment of ac encountered distribution problems, and ac motors needed further development. The management of reactive power and power factor regulation in ac distribution was still largely experimental, and ac customers had to contend with system instability. Industrial customers often installed motors of greater capacity than needed, and such “overmotoring,” as it was known, exacerbated power factor problems.
The legendary electrical engineer and mathematician Charles P. Steinmetz, whose theorems defined ac practice, stated in 1896 that dc should be installed anywhere the customer base was sufficient to amortize the expense of substations. In New York City, that translated to most of Manhattan below 135th Street and the eastern, central, and downtown areas of Brooklyn. While the substations for dc distribution were expensive, the elimination of localized power stations enabled the reduction of rates by half within a decade. Murray also designed many of the substations for both general utility and railway systems. An average of two dozen private power stations were retired annually. Steinmetz served as president of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE) from 1901 to 1902.
As electric power was brought within the reach of the average citizen, the use of residential and commercial devices and appliances expanded. Murray entered that market with numerous patented designs for lights, signs, controls, meters, fuses, and protective components. In 1910, his concern for electrical safety earned him the Edward Longstreth Medal of the Franklin Institute, an award bestowed “for inventions or for meritorious improvements and developments in machine and mechanical processes.” Several patents were shared, some with Van Vleck and Lieb, while the most significant was with Philip Torchio, a future vice president of New York Edison. That was a superior reactance coil design to protect generators from power surges (see Figures 2 and 3). In 1904, Murray and Brady’s son, Nicholas F. Brady, founded the Metropolitan Engineering Company to manufacture and market many of Murray’s inventions.
As the market expanded, additional power stations were constructed for Brooklyn Rapid Transit and New York Edison. Both stations were advanced in comparison to the previous plants. One major change was the substitution of steam turbines for reciprocating steam engines. Murray had installed a turbine at Waterside in September 1904, reportedly funded at his own expense when Brady refused to take the risk of a new technology. Turbines quickly became the standard as even the early turbine units doubled the generating capacity while using the same amount of space as the previous technology.
Turbines were installed in two new Murray stations. The Kent Avenue station of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company was opened in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 1905 to retire the last dc stations along the routes of the Brooklyn transit lines. The property of the Williamsburg Power Plant Company (a subsidiary of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company), the Kent Avenue station utilized a new 11,000-V transmission system, while substation switches permitted operation at either the new or old voltage. Waterside #2 of the New York Edison Company began operation in November 1906 located on the block to the north of station #1. The two Waterside stations were operated in concert under one system operator.
The hybrid ac power plant/dc substation concept brought urban electric utilities into the 20th century, but it was complex and expensive. As power demand grew at an exponential rate, half the cost of expansion represented the investment in the substations and distribution cables. Sustained growth required a simpler system, and innovators foresaw opportunity in the development of ac distribution. Many challenges were to be encountered and decades were to elapse before that goal was achieved.
Building the Future
Much has been written about the so-called “War of the Currents,” but any realistic survey of that era reveals that the conflict was a public relations dispute between competitors and had little impact on engineering decisions. Such decisions were based on practicality and economics. In New York City, major advances were made by a little-known electric utility, the United Electric Light and Power Company (United), a former Westinghouse holding.
When George Westinghouse explored electric power as an outgrowth of his gas light and railway signal business, he was immediately discouraged by the inefficiency of the dc systems he found in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. He pursued development of ac through research and also by the purchase of rights to the transformer patents of the Anglo-French team of Gaulard and Gibbs, William Stanley in the United States, Ernst Siemens in Germany, and others. Westinghouse then purchased United, a company that resulted from the reorganization of several arc light companies, to obtain a foothold in the New York City market. United’s initial 1889 installation of ac in lower Manhattan was less than a success as transformer losses were high.
Technology advanced substantially during the following seven years. Westinghouse had purchased the polyphase system patents of Nikola Tesla, which he then used to develop the comprehensive power system that was installed at Niagara Falls. Thomson-Houston, another company that pioneered the ac transformer, had become the lead partner in the merger that created the General Electric Company (GE). Both GE and Westinghouse cross-licensed the patents held by each. In 1896, United installed a 60-Hz ac system in midtown Manhattan powered by two-phase, 2,300-V lines from a station on 29th Street at the East River. At that time, three-phase lines failed to balance properly single-phase lighting loads and were thus restricted to the delivery of polyphase power to motors and converters.
Innovation was encouraged at United, which was said to be the first company to successfully parallel steam-driven alternators. Engineering was directed by William McElroy, a Westinghouse protégé; management was directed by Frank W. Smith, a businessman who began his career as a 12-year-old office boy with a predecessor company. Despite prevailing opinion, United managed to operate an urban ac system with a fair degree of reliability, most of it along the waterfront areas where the Edison Company had minimal lines due to the low density of load. United lines were extended to the northern end of Manhattan Island in 1899, with an exclusive franchise north of 135th Street, the northern boundary of the New York Edison Company territory in Manhattan.
United was acquired by the Consolidated Gas Company of New York in 1900 but was not included in the merger that created New York Edison. Two reasons for that omission are evident. First was the incompatibility of system frequency. Converters that produced dc then required a low frequency such as 25 Hz, while ac distribution required 40 Hz or more to prevent visible pulsation of lights. Second, there was the potential for United to become the base for efficient 60-Hz generation on a scale that would enable closure of the older and less efficient 60-Hz stations of affiliated companies in the Bronx, lower Westchester, and Queens. Thus the United and New York Edison Companies operated as twins, both under Consolidated Gas Company of New York ownership. That relationship lasted for decades; after 1914 they occupied different portions of the same building with United offices and showrooms at 130 East 15th Street, and New York Edison offices at 4 Irving Place.
United’s business expanded rapidly in the first decade of the 20th century as residential development followed the extension of subway access to northern Manhattan. The United load center followed that move even as the development of animated electrical advertising signs in Times Square opened a new market. There, the complex sign control mechanisms required ac to minimize arcing of the contacts. When demand exceeded capacity, United began taking power from Waterside through frequency and phase changing motor-alternators. In 1907, the city acquired the 29th Street/East River site for Bellevue hospital, and United was forced to rely on dedicated 60-Hz alternators at Waterside. Plans for a large United 60-Hz station were expedited to the extent financially practical.
Even before that station became reality, Murray’s innovation had entered United operations. Industrial load presented a challenge to ac power companies in the form of the reactive power drawn by induction motors that often operated below rated load. Some chose to meter reactive power and charge the customer for low power factor. Others installed at their own expense synchronous compensation, usually on the customer’s premises to avoid imposition of a “wattless” power component on utility lines.
United apparently avoided the problem through the supply of power to the 2,300-V synchronous motors that drove refrigeration compressors in ice cream and ice plants in northern Manhattan, in cold storage warehouses on the lower west side of Manhattan, and in dairies at various locations. Those synchronous motors provided a leading current that offset the lagging current drawn by the induction motors in adjacent factories and so stabilized system power factor locally. Murray was a member of the board of directors of many of the affected refrigeration companies.
By 1912, United was able to finance a new power station named Sherman Creek for an inlet off the Harlem River at 201st Street; operation was initiated in October 1913 (see Figures 4 and 5). An editorial in the 7 February 1914 issue of Electrical World (the leading trade journal), detailed the station as being “characteristic of Murray design” but with innovation in boilers and turbines and also in the layout of electrical buses and switchgear. Initially rated at 120 MW, the same as Waterside #2, Sherman Creek required only one third the number of boilers as did Waterside #2. The editorial closed with the comment that “were it located in some other borough away from the hypnotic spell of the well advertised word ‘Edison,’ United would be recognized as one of the great systems.” It was noted that the company produced more power than was then produced in the entire state of Rhode Island.
Beyond Murray’s supervision and design, his influence could be seen in components of the Sherman Creek plant. It introduced the use of pulverized coal with a crusher patented by Murray. It was probably the first new station to incorporate his water spray system to catch cinders in the coal smoke and to use “pancake” type reactance coils. Both the coils and “expulsion” type safety switches were manufactured by Murray’s Metropolitan Engineering Company, while Van Vleck type switches developed by Murray’s associate were used on the generator fields.
Sherman Creek supplied all the load of United, part of that of the Westchester Lighting Company, part of that of the Bronx Gas and Electric Company territory (east of the Bronx River), and all of the New York Edison territory in the Bronx (west of the Bronx River), all of which being ac territory. There it replaced the Rider Avenue station, located at 140th Street in the Bronx, on which Murray had assisted during its construction when he was first brought to New York City by Brady (see Figure 6). Opened in 1900 after New York Edison acquired the North River Electric Company, the Rider Avenue station was retired in 1914. It was rebuilt as a transformer station and business office described by Murray in his 1926 book Applied Engineering. As Murray planned, the supply from Rider Avenue was replaced by lower cost power from the Sherman Creek Station. Three of the eight units at Sherman Creek formed a dedicated 25-Hz supply to the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad through separate buses and switchgear. Sherman Creek was rated 151 MW when the last unit was completed, and the original 7,500-V transmission was supplemented by 13,200-V lines.
Murray maintained a climate that encouraged innovation. In 1917, it was said that Sherman Creek was the first power station to employ an idle alternator as a synchronous capacitor to supply reactive power to regulate system power factor. Electrical World commented often on the progress at United; the 9 September 1922 issue noted that the leadership extended beyond power stations to include distribution concepts. Power companies across the nation at that time were in pursuit of an ideal ac network to divest themselves of the expense and complexity of dc distribution. Studies had determined that dc distribution represented half of the capital investment in a system and incurred a large portion of the operating expense. In April 1922, United initiated an “automatic” network that proved reliable, economical, and efficient in operation. It was the most practical of all the networks then in operation and was the basis for those in use around the world today.
United then connected the networks directly to power station transmission lines without intermediary transformer substations and began substitution of three-phase circuits in place of the outdated two-phase systems. New theorems had eliminated the single-phase balance issue, and the change was universal. Electrical World again noted the progress at United in the 4 February 1928 issue with the comment “Economic justification of alternating-current service has not deterred utilities in seeking means to make it just as reliable as the Edison direct-current network system.” It went on to declare the United Company a pioneer (see Figure 7). United’s automatic network was the key to retiring the expensive and complex dc substations and distribution systems to meet the power demands of the 20th century.
The debut of ac secondary distribution networks produced new challenges in the event of component failure. The Metropolitan Engineering Company (by then exclusively a Murray family firm) sought that business with a network protector designed to prevent component damage in the event of an individual transformer failure. Fully electromagnetic, with no moving parts, it was designed to operate reliably with no maintenance (see Figure 8). Murray’s simple network protector was vital to the reliable operation of ac distribution networks in the event of faults or component failure.
Murray built three stations in the city during the 1920s, each among the largest ever constructed anywhere. The first, Hell Gate, was undertaken by United to supplement Sherman Creek and supply the northern suburbs and Queens. Named for the mariner’s term for the treacherous currents where the East River meets Long Island Sound, Hell Gate opened in November 1921. Planned for a capacity of 280 MW, so rapid was the advance in component design that it was actually rated at 605 MW to make it the world’s most powerful steam electric station upon installation of the last unit in 1928. Hell Gate introduced Murray’s most significant nonelectrical innovation for power stations: the water-cooled steel furnace wall to replace the fire brick refractory furnace wall used previously. The steel wall was comparatively thin, which afforded a substantial increase in furnace capacity and a major reduction in maintenance expense. This Murray innovation became the industry standard after the successful test at Hell Gate.
The second station, the largest of all the Murray stations, was constructed on Hudson Avenue in Brooklyn. At that time, Brooklyn was dependent on an enlarged Gold Street station and a small 1897 plant in Bay Ridge that supplied the ac distribution in southern Brooklyn at 62.5 Hz. That odd frequency was the result of the original design that produced two frequencies (25 and 60 Hz) in one alternator. The Brooklyn companies were reorganized as the Brooklyn Edison Company in 1919, which was directed by Matthew Sloan, a protégé of Murray and Lieb.
A strong proponent of both standardization and large-scale efficiency, Sloan directed in 1923 that the obsolete two-phase ac distribution system be changed to three phase to effect a 50% gain in capacity. He also ordered that ac distribution from banked transformers replace dc wherever practical. The keystone of the modernization was the Hudson Avenue station, located one block from the Gold Street plant. Three separate levels carried the phase buses; the oil circuit breakers extended through the floors to operate all three levels simultaneously. Transmission voltage was doubled to 27,600 V to reduce the number of cable ducts and avoid the need for property easements. The structure included offices and even a “research room” with walls two feet thick to contain any tests that might have gone awry.
Operation commenced in May 1924, and the frequency in Brooklyn was changed to the standard 60 Hz. Planned as a 400-MW station, progress once again led to an increased total. When the last unit was installed in 1932, the station was rated at 770 MW to take the title of the world’s most powerful steam electric station from Hell Gate. The Hudson Avenue station included some 25-Hz generation and also a synchronous-induction frequency changer to connect the two systems and reduce dependence on the Gold Street station. In time, the Hudson Avenue station supplied power to Queens as well as to Brooklyn.
The third and last station constructed under the direction of Murray during the 1920s was located on the East River at 14th Street to supply 25-Hz power to the New York Edison Company. Despite the universal trend toward ac distribution, New York Edison had continued to expand dc distribution with new substations and an increase in transmission voltage from 6,600 V to 11,400 V. After two reconstruction programs at each Waterside plant, an additional station was required. The last and most advanced of the Murray plants was the East River station, which was designed for an ultimate capacity of 1,000 MW, with the first stage rated 200 MW.
As was the case with other major construction projects directed by Murray in the 1920s, East River was undertaken by his engineering firm, Thomas E. Murray Inc. Entering service in November 1926, East River incorporated the latest innovations such as Murray’s steel water-cooled boiler walls and Murray fin-type boiler tubes to maximize heat transfer. Most significant was a provision for 60-Hz generation, a tacit admission by John Lieb and other proponents of dc distribution that the future would see a change to 60-Hz ac. At that time, however, the dc load was such that both frequency changers and 25-Hz generation had been installed at Hell Gate to permit United to assist New York Edison. Synchronous-induction 25/60-Hz frequency changers were also installed at East River and Waterside.
When Sloan was elected president of New York Edison and United in 1927 in preparation for an eventual unification of the systems, he targeted for elimination the complex New York Edison dc distribution system that numbered 41 substations with 282 converters. After extensive review, Sloan cited the United ac network in his November 1928 announcement of a long-term program to change New York Edison dc customers to ac electric service based on his experience in Brooklyn.
The Companies After Murray
In the fall of 1928, ill health forced Thomas E. Murray to retire from active participation in the work of the electric companies, including resignation from the vice chairmanship of New York Edison. He died at Wickapogue, his summer estate in Southampton, Long Island, on 21 July 1929, but his impact was, and remains, unmistakable. Beyond the giant power stations and the innovation he promoted, the immediate impact of his efforts could be seen in the customer’s electric bills. In 1900, the price of electric power for residential customers in Manhattan was US$0.20/kWh, and by mid-1917, both companies had cut that to US$0.07/kWh, a 65% reduction. Similar reduction in cost took place in Brooklyn, with the US$0.07/kWh level being reached after the completion of the Hudson Avenue plant. The affiliated companies matched those reductions within US$0.01 on average.
The standardization Murray encouraged by his support of Smith and United was advanced with Sloan’s drive for standardization. Although Sloan departed the company several years after Murray’s death, the planned unification came about within a few years. Successive mergers unified New York City’s electrical supply by 1952.
That Murray held a wide understanding of all aspects of electric power plant operation was exemplified by his frequent addresses to industry associations. The subjects were often that of power station design, the most economical use of fuel, and other operational details. In 1912, for example, he detailed to the AIEE the economics of power system operation and the cost to finance new projects. Throughout his career, Murray exchanged information and ideas with a wide range of inventors and industrialists. See Figure 9for a picture of Murray, Thomas Edison, and Walter Chrysler taken during a group tour arranged by Murray of the Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, factory of the Metropolitan Engineering Company. Murray’s inventions extended beyond electric power into the automotive and other fields. Chrysler was a customer of Murray’s manufacturing company.
Murray also advanced the careers of younger associates destined to continue development efforts. Philip Torchio, listed in 1903 as an assistant on the Gowanus rapid transit plant and also on some Murray patents, moved up the ranks of New York Edison. By the 1920s, Torchio was a vice president and a leading figure in the improvement of the system.
The accomplishments of Thomas E. Murray were best summed up in the obituary published in the Electrical World of 27 July 1929: “Rich in the world’s goods, rich in progeny and rich also in accomplishment, Mr. Murray rounded out what his intimate friends knew to be a well-ordered life. There was no show or braggadocio about him through his allotted three score and ten years. As the industry grew by leaps and bounds, Thomas E. Murray grew with it.” It went on to note his reorganization efforts and that he had power stations in New York and other states with more than 2 million kW combined capacity to his credit. His role as inventor and consultant was noted as was his church work and family life. It concluded that “he knew and showed the joy and satisfaction epitomized in the saying: It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
The New York Times obituary was similar, with the comment “He was held in such high regard that he was placed in virtual charge of all major operating decisions and policies established by the companies. The creativity and genius of Murray brought a uniformity to the systems that facilitated interconnection and eventual consolidation.” His church work was such that he was made a member of the Knights of St. Gregory and also of the Knights of Malta. He was one of the few people in the United States privileged to have Mass said, and the consecrated Host reserved, in the private chapel in his Brooklyn home.
National Inventors Hall of Fame
The National Inventors Hall of Fame was founded in 1973 by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and the National Council of Intellectual Property Law Associations. To be considered for induction into the Hall of Fame, located in Akron, Ohio, a candidate must hold at least one U.S. patent where the invention has contributed significantly to the welfare of mankind and has promoted the progress of science and the useful arts. Induction ceremonies for successful candidates are held each May.
Thomas E. Murray was granted 462 U.S. patents in a wide range of technical areas during his long and remarkable career. He was formally inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame on 4 May 2011. His specific citation was for “Improvements in Electric System Safety” with particular reference to his work on electrical safety devices and fuses. Figure 10 is the patent drawing for one of Murray’s fuse inventions.
While the talents and accomplishments of Thomas E. Murray were many, the most impressive characteristic is the equanimity of Murray in his interaction with associates. He partnered with John Lieb to advance dc distribution for immediate demand, while he strongly supported the efforts of Frank W. Smith to foster development of ac distribution for the future. That approach to business was exemplified in the books that detailed the plants he had designed. The 1910 volume devotes significant space to dc substations, but none are referenced directly in his 1922 work. Such vision and confidence in the orderly progression of technological development is a rare gift indeed.
The utility system that today powers New York City, the most dense concentration of electrical load in the world, is a product of constant innovation and evolution guided by long-range planning. Murray’s initiative and vision set the standards that became the base on which his successors built. A man who shunned notoriety and attention for his achievements and who even refused recognition for acts of charity with the declaration that such “was not charity but advertising,” Murray’s name has largely been lost in time. In another sense, however, his name is posted “in lights” for all to see; the bright “skyglow” visible over the city for miles from sea, land, or air is the legacy of his pioneering accomplishments of a century ago.
For Further Reading
T. E. Murray, Electric Power Plants: A Description of a Number of Power Stations Designed by Thomas Edward Murray. New York: privately published, 1910.
T. E. Murray, Power Stations. New York: privately published, 1922.
T. E. Murray, Applied Engineering. New York: The Ferris Printing Company, 1928.
S. Birmingham, Real Lace: American Irish Rich. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.
J. Corry, Golden Clan—The Murrays, the McDonnells & the Irish American Aristocracy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977.
S. MacGuire. (2011, 25 June). Thomas E. Murray. Available Online
Hall of Fame/inventor profile. (2011). Thomas E. Murray. Available Online
J. Argyle, “How many inventors does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” Solares Hill, vol. 32, no. 20, pp. 1, 3, and 7, May 2011.
A. H. Kehoe, “Underground alternating-current network distribution for central station systems,” AIEE Trans., vol. 43, pp. 844–853; discussion pp. 869–875, June 1924.
R. J. Landman. (2008, 2 May). Underground secondary ac networks, a brief history (2007 IEEE Conference on the History of Electric Power, 3–5 August). Available Online
T. Murray, L. Stockton, and G. Marcus. (2011, 1 Nov.). Forgotten genius (Planned documentary film on the life and work of Thomas E. Murray). Available Online
H. Richter, “Evolution of the ac network system,” Electric J., vol. 22, pp. 320–336, July 1925.