Pearl Street in Miniature
Models of the Electric Generating Station
The inspiration for this history article was supplied by Thomas J. Blalock, a frequent contributor of interesting and informative history articles to these pages. Recently, Tom sent me a photocopy of p. 459 of the 2 March 1929 issue of Electrical World. One of a number of short entries under “Briefer News” on the page was “New York Edison Makes Models of Old Pearl Street Station.” The piece discussed three working scale models of Thomas Alva Edison’s pioneering Pearl Street, Manhattan, central generating station. The models were built in the mechanical construction shops of the New York Edison Company, a direct predecessor of the present Consolidated Edison Company of New York (Con Edison). In the margin of the photocopy, Tom wrote the following note: “Carl, I wonder if any of these still exist?” Thus began my quest to locate any survivors of the three models built in the late 1920s.
Edison’s Pearl Street Central Generating Station
Thomas Edison’s development of the first practical incandescent lightbulb and an entire system to generate and distribute direct current (dc) electric power to customers has been well documented and has been the subject, at least in part, of three history articles that have appeared in this magazine since 2003 (see “For Further Reading”). The Pearl Street station, the world’s first permanent central electric generating station, was covered in some detail in each of those articles. Further, in a dedication ceremony hosted by Con Edison on 10 May 2011, the Pearl Street station, which began operation on 4 September 1882, was named an IEEE Milestone in Electrical Engineering. The Milestone nomination was made by the IEEE New York Section with the cooperation and participation of Con Edison, a company that traces its lineage back to the Edison Electric Illuminating company of New York, formed in 1880 by Thomas Edison to undertake the initial electrification of lower Manhattan.
The service area for the Pearl Street station was laid out in a rectangle about 1/2 mi (0.80 km) on a side. Known as the First District, this service area was bounded by Nassau Street on the west, Spruce Street and the former Ferry Street on the north, the East River on the east, and Wall Street on the south. Seeking a central location for his generating station, Edison bought two adjoining four-story commercial buildings at 255 and 257 Pearl Street. To accommodate the weight of the dynamos and associated equipment, Edison installed a free-standing ironwork structure inside the 257 Pearl Street building. The 255 Pearl Street building was kept in reserve to allow for possible later expansion of the electric power station (see Figure 1).
The Building of the Pearl Street Models
The three working scale models of the Pearl Street station were built under the supervision of John W. Lieb, then senior vice president of the New York Edison Company, to ensure historical accuracy. Lieb served as Edison’s chief electrician when the Pearl Street station was built, and he was the one who closed the main switch on Edison’s order on the afternoon of 4 September 1882 to inaugurate delivery of dc power to customers in the First District. Lieb served as president of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE) in 1904–1905 and was awarded the AIEE Edison Medal in 1923 for “the development and operation of electric central stations for illumination and power.”
Thirty-one skilled mechanics working under the supervision of George K. Jessup, superintendent of shops, devoted about six months to the building of the three models.
The 2 March 1929 Electrical World article reports that the New York Edison Company commissioned the building of the models to provide “historic reference” and to serve as a tangible record of the central electric generating station that “ushered in the electrical age.” The models were built to the scale of 1/2 in to the foot. Each model is 62 in (157.48 cm) long, 34 in (86.36 cm) high, and 13 in (33.02 cm) wide. The two smokestacks rise 14 in (35.56 cm) above the roof of the four-story building. Figure 2 shows one of the models as depicted in the 1929 Electrical World article.
The models include scale replicas of all of the equipment present in the Pearl Street station. A small electric motor activated by a button turned the dynamos, the reciprocating engines, the forced-draft fans, and the other apparatus needed to operate the station. Cutaway sections of the side wall of the building allow the viewer to see the equipment located on each of the four levels. The boilers were located on the lowest level; the dynamos and reciprocating engines were on the reinforced second level; and the upper two levels were occupied by regulators, banks of test lamps to monitor dynamo output, and space for testing and storage.
The Pearl Street Models Today
In the belief that everyone likes a treasure hunt, I set out to answer Tom Blalock’s question and, if successful, to share this story with our readers. Happily, all three models are still in existence, and all are lodged with major institutions that respect their historical value and the significance of the Pearl Street station in the creation and development of the modern era. Each of the three subsections below discusses one of the models.
Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, Behring Center, Washington, D.C.
I began my search for the Pearl Street models with a head start since my wife and I had visited the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH), Behring Center, in March 2011 and saw one of the models displayed in the electrical section (see Figures 3–5). This discovery led to a telephone conversation with Hal Wallace, associate curator–electrical collections, with whom I had the pleasure of working when we were both members of the IEEE History Committee. Hal confirmed that the Smithsonian received one of the models in 1928 from the New York Edison Company as catalog number 309605, accession number 104795. The model was restored in 1963, presumably in preparation for its going on display in the then-new Smithsonian Museum of History and Technology, now the NMAH.
Coincidentally, Hal had a discussion with Kenneth Schnorr of Con Edison’s Learning Center that led me to the second model, but more about that later.
Consolidated Edison Company of New York, Learning Center, Long Island City, New York
Kenneth Schnorr, senior instructor for electrical skills training at the Con Edison Learning Center, and his family visited the electrical display at the Smithsonian’s NMAH on a recent vacation trip to Washington, D.C. Ken was surprised to see that the Smithsonian’s Pearl Street model is essentially identical to a model on display on the second floor of the Con Edison Learning Center where Ken works (see Figures 6 and 7). Obviously, New York Edison (now Con Edison) retained one of the three scale models built in the company’s mechanical construction shops. The retained model was originally displayed in the reception room of the office of Matthew S. Sloan, then president of New York Edison.
After his return home from Washington D.C., Ken contacted Hal Wallace to discuss the matter; Hal later gave me Ken’s e-mail address when I spoke to him about the model at the NMAH. Happily, Ken’s vacation and his later conversation with Hal led me to the location of the second model.
One difference between the Con Edison model and the other two models is that the Con Edison model has an extensive interactive display capability where a viewer can push a number of buttons that illuminate and operate or highlight the equipment (see Figures 8 and 9).
Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan
During my search for the third and final Pearl Street station working model, I came across a program for a 29 May 1980 dedication ceremony in which the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) named two Mechanical Engineering Landmarks at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan. Founded in 1929 by Henry Ford, the two principal venues of the museum complex are the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. One ASME Landmark was for the Edison “Jumbo” engine-driven dynamo number 9, a machine that was one of the six original such dynamos installed in 1882 at the Pearl Street generating station (see Figure 10). After dynamo number 9 was retired, it was donated to Greenfield Village in 1930. This dynamo is the only surviving example of its type out of the 23 built.
One of the several images in the ASME dedication ceremony program is an artist’s rendering that includes a Pearl Street station model. Seeing this picture in the program was a clue that the third Pearl Street model may be at The Henry Ford. I had earlier speculated that this might be the home of the third model because of the museum’s extensive collection of Edison material and artifacts and its reputation as a premier museum celebrating the spirit of innovation in American history and technology.
I contacted the museum’s Benson Ford Research Center, which, in turn, put me in contact with Marc Greuther, chief curator. Mr. Greuther confirmed that Henry Ford Museum does indeed have and exhibit the third model (see Figure 11). It was acquired in 1929 as accession number 29.1746.1. The model is on display at the museum in a glass case adjacent to a triple-expansion, engine-driven dynamo (red frame members in the background of Figure 11) that was the subject of the second Mechanical Engineering Landmark that was dedicated by the ASME on 29 May 1980.
While attending the National Electric Lamp Association convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1929, Henry Ford observed one of the Pearl Street models on display and in operation. After completing his examination of the model, Ford reportedly turned to New York Edison President Sloan and said: “I’d like to have that in my museum out at Dearborn.” Sloan reportedly replied: “All right, Mr. Ford, take it along.” The 1 October 1929 Metropolitan Electric Topics reported: “Ford triumphantly carried the handsome prize away with him at the end of the convention.”
Edison’s Pearl Street central generating station operated from 4 September 1882 to 2 January 1890 when a fire heavily damaged the station and destroyed most of the equipment except for “Jumbo” dynamo number 9, mentioned above. The station was rebuilt and continued to operate into the 1890s, but improving technology rendered the station outmoded, and it was retired and dismantled by 1895. Today, a public parking lot occupies the former site of the Pearl Street station.
While the Pearl Street station is long gone, the three scale models remain on display to help inform current and future generations of the pioneering role played by Pearl Street and Edison’s First District in the creation of the modern age of electricity.
I am grateful to Hal Wallace (Smithsonian Institution), Kenneth Schnorr (Con Edison), and Marc Greuther (The Henry Ford) for their valuable contribution of images and information that made this article possible. Without their assistance, Tom Blalock’s question could not have been answered. I also want to acknowledge the support and assistance of Sheldon Hochheiser, archivist and institutional historian at the IEEE History Center, whom I often call upon for information related to the subject matter of history articles that I write or edit.
For Further Reading
“New York Edison makes models of old Pearl Street station,” Elec. World, vol. 93, no. 9, p. 459, Mar. 1929.
R. D. Friedel, Pearl Street. A Centennial Commemoration. New York: IEEE Power Engineering Society, 1982.
C. L. Sulzberger, “Triumph of ac: From Pearl Street to Niagara,” IEEE Power Energy Mag., vol. 1, no. 3, pp. 64–67, May–June 2003.
R. W. Lobenstein and C. L. Sulzberger, “Eyewitness to dc history: The first and last days of dc service in New York City,” IEEE Power Energy Mag., vol. 6, no. 3, pp. 84–90, May–June 2008.
R. W. Lobenstein, “Saving history: The story of Edison dynamo no. 16,” IEEE Power Energy Mag., vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 72–82, May–June 2012.
“Pearl Street models at museums and expositions: One goes to Dearborn,” Metrop. Electr. Topics, vol. 1, no. 10, p. 8, Oct. 1, 1929.
“The electric century, 1874–1974,” Elec. World, pp. 18–20, June 1974.