Thomas Edison began operating the first permanent commercial electrical power plant in New York.

Edison created his incandescent light bulb in October 1879, and was quick to realise that he also had to develop a system to generate and distribute the required electricity to consumers.

Having successfully installed a number of smaller private systems in both the United States and Britain, Edison bought two adjoining commercial buildings on Pearl Street in the area known as the First District in New York to house his commercial power plant.

Installing the six dynamos and their coal-powered reciprocating steam engines was a significant technical challenge, but one of the most expensive aspects of the venture was the laying of almost 100,000 feet of wiring in specially-dug underground conduits.

By the time the system was ready to begin operation on 4 September 1882, Edison had signed up around 80 customers with a total of 400 light bulbs. The New York Times, one of the first users, described the “soft, mellow” light in a short article the next day. However the inauguration of the world’s first commercial power plant did not receive the media fanfare many might have expected, and the report was filed under ‘Miscellaneous City News.’

While Edison’s customer base increased to almost 500 users within twelve months of the Pearl Street Station opening, it ran at a loss for the first two years. The system did, however, generate demand for electrical energy elsewhere and kick-started the electrical age. The shortcomings of Edison’s direct current soon became apparent, however, as it was prohibitively expensive to provide such power over long distances. Within just a few years, competitors using high voltage alternating current had begun to dominate the market.

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