Lightbulbs were so startup

18.40, Wednesday 18 May 2022

Edison invented the first practical incandescent electric light in 1879. (That is, the filament lasted more than a few hours.)

But it couldn’t be brought to consumers because there was no commercially-available electricity.


In 1882, the Edison Illuminating Company opened the first commercial power plant in the United States: Pearl Street Station (Wikipedia) in Lower Manhattan.

Starting small… it started generating electricity on September 4, 1882, serving an initial load of 400 lamps at 82 customers. By 1884, Pearl Street Station was serving 508 customers with 10,164 lamps.

They had to invent a new kind of dynamo to generate the electricity. Ahead of the power station, Edison ran a number of pop-ups as prototypes.

HOWEVER: power distribution.

… perhaps the greatest challenge was building the elaborate network of wires and underground tubes (called “conduits”) needed to deliver energy to customers. New York City politicians were initially skeptical and rejected Edison’s proposal to dig up the streets of lower Manhattan to install the needed 100,000 feet of wiring. Eventually, however, Edison was able to convince the mayor of the city otherwise. The conduit installation proved to be one of the most expensive parts of the whole project.

Not only a distribution problem, but a backchannel conversation between people with power to get around the rules. Capitalists gonna capitalise.

AND THERE’S MORE: the business model.

Since the early 1800s there had been special instruments to detect the flow of a current and indicate how much of it was flowing, but there was not an instrument to record that flow over time. Not until the spring of 1882 was a successful design for an electric meter available. However, Edison did not send bills to his customers until the whole system was running reliably, which took some more time. The first electric bill was sent to the Ansonia brass and copper company on 18 January 1883 and was for $50.44.

(That quote from the same ETHW article linked above.)

In addition light bulbs cost $1 ea.

The setup cost (including real estate) was $300,000 – a lot to return, 50 bucks at a time.

The company ran at a loss until 1884. Pearl Street Station burnt down in 1890, was rebuilt, then in 1895 decommissioned when it was made obsolete by newer, larger power stations.

A single value-creating innovation requiring a vast hinterland of enabling technologies in order to connect the product to its market.

It’s so startup it hurts.

Questions I have:

  • How can we compare the cost of “inventing the lightbulb” vs digging the streets, building the power station, getting to profitability, etc? Say, in terms of hours of human effort? Was it 50:50, 80:20, 1:99?
  • Were other models other than metered electricity considered? Like, light-as-a-service with bundled bulbs? Or somehow connecting the cost of the service to the value for the customer – could customer businesses be charged a fraction of revenue, say? My guess: it comes down to what’s easy to measure. Businesses nowadays will grab a % (the “take”) from their customers simply because it’s possible to do so.
  • Were other applications for electricity actively considered, or was this a pure lighting play? The fractional horse-power motor scaled down factory automation to the home, and the electrification boom brought with it vacuum cleaning and washing machines… yet the enabling tech wasn’t invented till 1888. But was it visible on the horizon? Or was it only lighting that justified the huge investment in Pearl Street Station and the 100,000 feet of conduits?
  • Why go for this very broad market first? Why not build smaller generators in the basement of department stores, lighting up just single buildings or single streets? Isn’t the value in (say) adding an extra hour of brightly-lit shopping every evening more obvious than trying to replace gas and oil for home customers?

Did Edison have a team of 1880s MBA-equivalents, crunching the numbers to figure out what to do?

What was the mood around electric lighting back then? Did it feel like a hype train? Was the social media of the time full of wild speculation about the social changes that would be unleashed and the fortunes that would be made?

Electricity, generally, had that aura of excitement. A few years back I read every issue of Electrical Review from the 1880s and 1890s which covered the rollout of the telegraph and then lighting, simultaneous with figuring out the science of how electricity behaved (I wrote up my observations here) – but I think I need to go back and read the preceding decade too.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it by email or on social media. Here’s the link. Thanks, —Matt.