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On September 15, 1878, a group of New York reporters traveled to Thomas Edison's laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, to hear his most startling announcement to date. In just six weeks, he told them, illumination by gaslight would be obsolete. He would create a vast, new industry to provide electric power that would light up America -- and revolutionize the world. "When I am through, only the rich will be able to afford candles," he said. Gas stocks plummeted overnight. J.P. Morgan hastily provided the 31-year-old inventor with the capital he needed to carry out his daring scheme.
When the first electric lights cast their golden glow over Menlo Park on New Year's Eve 1880, a crowd of 3,000 people gathered in awe. Edison, the worker of miracles, had triumphed. Historian and author Carolyn Marvin says, "Victorians saw the electric light and the effect of electricity (or 'the lightning') as having an almost religious power. Edison was both godlike, because he could manipulate the lightning, and a very dark and satanic figure for the same reason. He could challenge God's order."
In the months that followed, Edison and his team grappled with the tough job of designing and producing, by hand, the necessary components of a viable electrical system: sockets, fuses, switches, power meters, generators. In New York he built the first commercial electric utility near Wall Street. The time had come to start mass production, but when Edison approached his investors for more money, they turned him down flat. Nothing more, they said, before their initial investments had paid off. "The issue is factories or death!" raged Edison, and raised the funds himself. At 3pm on September 4, 1882, Edison threw the switch that would start up America's first power plant, serving a square-mile area that included some very wealthy and influential customers: J.P. Morgan, the Stock Exchange, and the nation's largest newspapers. "I have accomplished all that I promised," the inventor said.
It would take another two years for the public to trust electricity enough to purchase orders for plants in other cities. Edison promoted electric light as being clean, healthy, and efficient -- unlike foul-smelling, dangerous gas -- and had reason to think the public believed him. Cables insulated with beeswax and paraffin had been laid under the streets, but before long problems surfaced: horses were shocked trotting down wet streets, workmen electrocuted. Across the country, the Edison system was meeting with widespread resistance.
He embarked on a flamboyant advertising campaign to assuage public fears. At the Philadelphia Electrical Exposition, Edison hired a minstrel who tap-danced across an electrified floor while his helmet lit up in rhythm to his feet. In New York, he staged an "Electric Torch Light Parade" in which 400 men marched through Manhattan -- wearing light bulbs on their heads and power lines down their sleeves that were connected to a horse-drawn, steam-powered generator. The message came across loud and clear: electricity was safe. In 1887 Edison set up the Edison General Electric Company, and J.P. Morgan paid nearly two million dollars to buy into it.
The world's greatest inventor had become a prosperous industrialist. No longer did his photographs show a rumpled, unshaven country boy, but instead, a smartly tailored, urban gentleman. His wife, Mary, had died, leaving 40-year-old Edison with three children to raise. He soon married a beautiful young woman, Mina Miller. Edison's hearing had been deteriorating since he was 11; he taught his second bride Morse code so they could communicate by tapping on one another's wrists.
In 1890 Edison became involved in the "battle of the currents." His system depended on low-voltage direct current (DC), which was capable of sending electricity little more than a mile. But industrialist George Westinghouse had developed a a far-reaching system that used high-voltage alternating current (AC), and a former employee of Edison's, Nikola Tesla, invented AC motors and generators that threatened Edison's domination of the electrical industry. In a last-ditch effort to save the business he had created, Edison took advantage of an unusual opportunity to discredit Westinghouse. He gave his full endorsement to a plan to use 1,000 volts of AC -- from a Westinghouse generator -- to execute criminals sentenced to death in New York state.
The first execution turned into a grisly spectacle, damaging Edison's reputation. The board of Edison General Electric decided to adopt AC power, and dropped Edison's name; the company was now called "General Electric." Edison would refuse to set foot in any General Electric plants for the next 30 years, but his ability to reinvent himself matched his scientific prowess. In the second half of his life he would invent the first motion picture camera, improve his phonograph, and become America's first entertainment mogul. "People will forget," he stated with typical bravado, "that my name ever was connected with anything electrical."