In the final decades of the nineteenth century, three brilliant and visionary titans of America’s Gilded Age—Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse—battled bitterly as each vied to create a vast and powerful electrical empire. In Empires of Light, historian Jill Jonnes portrays this extraordinary trio and their riveting and ruthless world of cutting-edge science, invention, intrigue, money, death, and hard-eyed Wall Street millionaires. At the heart of the story are Thomas Alva Edison, the nation’s most famous and folksy inventor, creator of the incandescent light bulb and mastermind of the world’s first direct current electrical light networks; the Serbian wizard of invention Nikola Tesla, elegant, highly eccentric, a dreamer who revolutionized the generation and delivery of electricity; and the charismatic George Westinghouse, Pittsburgh inventor and tough corporate entrepreneur, an industrial idealist who in the era of gaslight imagined a world powered by cheap and plentiful electricity and worked heart and soul to create it.
Edison struggled to introduce his radical new direct current (DC) technology into the hurly-burly of New York City as Tesla and Westinghouse challenged his dominance with their alternating current (AC), thus setting the stage for one of the eeriest feuds in American corporate history, the War of the Electric Currents. The battlegrounds: Wall Street, the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Niagara Falls, and, finally, the death chamber—Jonnes takes us on the tense walk down a prison hallway and into the sunlit room where William Kemmler, convicted ax murderer, became the first man to die in the electric chair.
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"Morgan's House Was Lighted Up Last Night"
In the late spring of 1882, Thomas Alva Edison, world famous as the folksy genius who had invented the improved telegraph and telephone, the amazing talking phonograph, and the incandescent light bulb, would shamble in occasionally to the hushed, formal suites of Drexel, Morgan & Company at 23 Wall Street, an imposing white marble Renaissance palace of mammon. There in a glass-walled back office, J. Pierpont Morgan presided at an oversize rolltop desk. The autocratic senior partner wore a banker's black suit, starched snowy shirt, wing collar, and fine gray silk ascot. His expensive, ever-present Havana cigar made the air smoky, redolent of privilege and power. Morgan's investment firm was partially bankrolling Edison's fevered building of America's first incandescent electric lighting system in the crowded commercial blocks of lower Manhattan. When Edison visited Drexel, Morgan, the clean-shaven, still boyish inventor loved to disparage the office's gaslight globes as burning a "vile poison." But soon the gaslight would be gone, preempted by Edison's beloved clean electric light.
Edison, thirty-five, was already a celebrated figure in the downtown streets, recognizable in his signature slouch-brim hat or battered stovepipe, shabby shirt, bright neckerchief, and frayed black Prince Albert coat. He and his crews were logging dusty eighteen-hour shifts as they pushed to finish the far-behind-schedule Pearl Street Station generating plant and install (only at night) fourteen miles of just-below-the-street electrical conduits. All morning and afternoon pedestrians ebbed and flowed through the financial neighborhood, dark-suited men sporting shiny top hats or black bowlers, clutching their canes. "Bank messengers, with bags filled with coin, greenbacks, bills of exchange, bonds and stocks, hurry along," wrote one contemporary of hustling-bustling Wall Street, "keeping a firm grip upon their bags and eying each person they pass warily, office boys, telegraph boys with yellow envelopes containing messages from all quarters of the globe, dart here and there through the throng." These acolytes of the high-toned, handsome financial district shared the jammed nearby streets with horse-drawn trolleys, heavy delivery wagons, dog-drawn rag carts, noisy oyster sellers, and small boys hawking any one of the city's dozens of newspapers. Everywhere, with the weather warming up, the city's streets reeked of horse piss and dung left daily by the 150,000 horses pulling the city's trams, trucks, Broadway stages, and fancy rigs. At night, when Edison most liked to work, he could be found with his Irish crews laying trenches somewhere near Pearl Street, already dirty with grease and tar, or tinkering with the six jumbo dynamos installed up on the reinforced second floor.
That late spring and summer, Edison had occasion to confer with J. Pierpont on another small but important job. In his office, Morgan cultivated a renowned ferocity: the gruff, impatient bark, the famed glare that challenged visitors of any rank to intrude. Other wealthy men in this most hirsute of eras flaunted complex and flamboyant beards and mustachios, but the forty-five-year-old Morgan sported only a plain, trimmed mustache. J. Pierpont Morgan had been raised an old money gentleman, conservative and stern in manner and habits. But the America of the 1880s was changing rapidly, daring men and women to dream bold dreams, to grasp for great ventures and great wealth. Just a few blocks south, the Roeblings' magnificent East River Bridge was nearing completion after thirteen arduous years, a soaring engineering marvel of suspension, floating across the shimmering New York waters. Nearby, the elevated railroads with their small belching steam engines chugged stolidly along, high above the chaos and stench of Manhattan's tangled traffic, astounding visitors with their efficient moving of tens of thousands of workers as they snaked north between tenements and offices and then out to the far bucolic reaches of the city. The miracle of the great Atlantic cable flashed telegrams across the coldest depths of the ocean. Where once letters from Pierpont's father in the London office took weeks to arrive, now telegrams pulsed through in mere minutes. The railroads had become mighty, creating new cities where there had been only marshland or prairie. In just the past year, they had laid an astounding ten thousand miles of track. The 1880 census showed fifty million Americans. Morgan, unlike many of his old money peers, relished this new temper of the times, admired men like Edison who were bold, ambitious, hardworking, confident.
Late that spring, Morgan, who had just returned from a long European tour, had briefly put aside his considerable business concerns and announced to Edison an audacious decision. He was going to personally showcase the advantages of Edison's pioneering incandescent light in his elegant Madison Avenue brownstone, just then in the throes of top-to-bottom renovation. Morgan's Italianate mansion would become, thereby, the first private residence in New York to be illuminated solely by electricity. This was, of course, no simple matter. Nonetheless, the imperious Morgan wanted the electricity installed and working by the time he, his wife, Fanny, and their three teenage children moved in that fall from their country estate, Cragston, up the Hudson River. Edison was delighted to oblige, for it would be a great coup to have Morgan's personal imprimatur on what many dismissed as a dangerous and exotic novelty. Whatever people thought of J. P. Morgan, no one thought him a fool. Money men had learned that he was decisive, intelligent, and swift of action, and above all, he kept his word, no small matter when spectral figures liked Jay Gould preyed upon the stock market.
And so, as the shad were about to make their annual run up the Hudson River, a crew of Edison workers clopped up in a horse-drawn wagon to Morgan's nearly renovated mansion at 219 Madison on the northeast corner of 36th Street. They laboriously excavated a large earthen cellar beneath the wooden stable, their shovels rhythmically slinging dirt and rocks into a growing pile. Within the musty space of the dirt cellar, they installed a squat steam engine and boiler to power two electric generators, all of which displaced Morgan's carriage horses to a nearby stable. The men also dug a ditch connecting the new cellar to the house, lined it with bricks, laid in the electrical wires, and bricked it over. Inside the mansion, decorator Christian Herter supervised the snaking of insulated electrical wires up through the elaborately wood-paneled and plastered walls where ordinarily the gas lines would have gone. These wires were then threaded through to every space in the mansion, and new electrical fixtures were installed. In some rooms electrical wires hung straight down every few feet from small holes in the tall ceilings, sprouting at their tips several small light bulbs.
On Thursday, June 8, 1882, Edison Electric Company president Major Sherbourne Eaton wrote Edison, "Morgan's house was lighted up last night. I was not there but I am told that the light was satisfactory and that Morgan was delighted. The armature of the 250 light [bulb] machine sparked badly. It will have to be changed at once. Vail took charge of that. Herter was present and declared himself entirely satisfied. Morgan is pleased with everything but Herter's fixtures." By fall, as the New York social season opened, the Wall Street financier and his family were installed in their new home with its 385 electric lights, casting a soft, even, incandescent glow everywhere, from the servants' halls and butler's pantry to the bedrooms and the "Japanese manner" reception room and sitting room. The Romanesque dining room with its high oak paneling was particularly striking, for there electric lights cast a lovely jeweled radiance through the twelve-foot-square stained-glass skylight.
The deluxe Artistic Houses rhapsodized about every rich and costly detail of Morgan's newly renovated brownstone residence, gushing especially about the vast and splendiferous terra-cotta drawing room, where "a breath from the Graeco-Roman epoch of Italia seems to have left its faint impress on the walls, or rather its faint fragrance in the atmosphere . . . amid the aroma of perfect taste." This must have pleased Morgan, who disdained the obvious vulgarity of many of the new Gilded Age millionaires. His house was meant to convey an aura of money and power, subtly burnished by his European education, culture, and worldly intelligence. What was genuinely new and unique was Edison's electric light. "Each room is supplied with it, and, in order to illuminate a room, you have simply to turn a knob as you enter. By turning a knob near the head of his bed, Mr. Morgan is able to light instantaneously the hall and every room on the first floor, basement, and cellar-a valuable precaution in case of the arrival of burglars." This assumed burglars did not prowl and enter in the middle of the night. Because, as Morgan's son-in-law Herbert Satterlee explained in a memoir of Morgan, "The generator had to be run by an expert engineer who came on duty at three p.m. and got up steam, so that at any time after four o'clock on a winter's afternoon the lights could be turned on. This man went off duty at 11 p.m. It was natural that the family should often forget to watch the clock, and while visitors were still in the house, or possibly a game of cards was going on, the lights would die down and go out." Then there was a careful groping about in the sudden murk to light beeswax candles and kerosene lamps.
Yet that was the least of Morgan's problems as a proud pioneer consumer of electrical power. Each silvery winter afternoon, the noise of the city day ebbed away in the genteel and moneyed streets on Murray Hill. Then the delicious still of the indigo evening mingled only with the occasional soothing clip-clop of passing horses and broughams. As the handsome houses lit up their gaslights, all was quiet. But now, when the sun dipped below the horizon, Mr. Morgan's steam engine and electrical generators roared to life, shattering the descending blessed calm. These powerful machines clanked and throbbed so intensely, Mrs. James Brown next door complained that her whole house was vibrating. And that was not all. The infernal steam engine contraption, operating as it did on coal, also belched noxious fumes and smoke. Mrs. Brown reported that this was permeating her pantry, leaving her silver tarnished. Mr. Morgan reassured his aggrieved neighbor's husband that an "expert" from Edison's company "will call and see from personal observation and consultation what the features are which cause you annoyance. . . . I need scarcely add that I shall spare neither exertion nor expense" to tame the overwrought machines.
Just after Christmas, when three weeks had passed and nary an Edison man had materialized to right the situation, Morgan wrote indignantly to Sherbourne Eaton: "I must frankly say that I consider the whole thing an outrage to me, as well as the neighbors-& am unwilling to stand it any longer. Please let the matter have immediate attention." Finally an Edison crew appeared and solved the problem by underpinning the machines with India rubber pads, lining the stable with felt, and further cushioning the whole installation with sandbags. Then yet another ditch was dug across the yard, this to funnel the coal smoke from the steam engine into the mansion's chimney. Now, a new kind of noise impinged. Reported son-in-law Satterlee, "In the winter when the snow melted above the brick conduit, all the stray cats in the neighborhood gathered on this warm strip in great numbers, and their yowling gave grounds for more complaints." And there was, of course, the intermittent annoyance of wires short-circuiting and the generator occasionally malfunctioning.
All this was understandably trying to the Morgan family. Yet Morgan was surprisingly patient. As an investment banker who had backed many railroads, which were continually absorbing new technologies, he seemed quite accepting that problems large and small were inevitable. Had it not taken three arduous tries before the Atlantic cable was properly laid and began to work reliably? Finally, however, in the fall of 1883, J. Pierpont requested Edward H. Johnson, one of Edison's top executives, to please come have a look at the mansion's less-than-satisfactory year-old electrical arrangements. Johnson was not happy about going to Morgan's, but in a fledgling industry desperate for capital and credibility, he had little choice. Morgan's firm was a significant power in Wall Street. In a brief reminiscence written for Satterlee's book, Johnson said that "after thoroughly canvassing the lighting of the house," he found the system already outmoded. Electric light technology was advancing that quickly. "Mr. Morgan inquired of me what I thought of it. I asked if he wished an honest and candid reply. He said he did. I said, 'If it was my own I would throw the whole D thing into the street.' [Replied Morgan,] 'That is precisely what Mrs. Morgan says.' " The next day, when Morgan was at his office reviewing balance sheets and surveying all that happened through his cigar haze, he summoned Johnson and asked him to go up to the mansion personally and redo the electric. A reluctant Johnson agreed.
As part of the new, upgraded electrical lighting of the Morgan residence, Johnson decided to improvise "an arrangement for giving light on Mr. Morgan's library table by means of concealed wires in the floor and contact spuds fixed in the legs of the table to penetrate the heavy and costly rug which covered the floor." The next morning quite early, Johnson received another summons to the Morgan manse. As he headed swiftly toward Madison Avenue and 36th, he had a queasy feeling something had gone awry. Upon entering Morgan's magnificent mosaic vestibule and removing his derby, he took one whiff of the air and his worst fears were confirmed. "The house was pervaded by a strong smell of wet, burned wood and burned carpet." The servant who had answered the door escorted Johnson to the library. "The library floor was torn up in several places; and in the centre of the room was the partly burned desk and burned rug and other charred objects piled in a heap. . . . One of the spuds [beneath the library table] had become bent or broken and an imperfect contact was made and a fire ensued completely wrecking the beautiful room. The family were at the opera at the time." Johnson surveyed the soggy, blackened detritus, his spirits sinking rapidly. For while J. P. Morgan did not yet fully dominate American finance as he eventually would, he was still a famously impatient and ill-tempered man and growing ever more influential among the all-important New York money men. Years later, that moment was still vivid to Johnson. "It was a dismal scene. . . . Suddenly I heard footsteps and Mr. Morgan appeared in the doorway with a newspaper in his hand and looked at me over the tops of his glasses.
" 'Well?' he said.
"I had formulated an explanation, and was prepared to make an elaborate excuse. Just as I opened my mouth to speak, Mrs. Morgan appeared behind Mr. Morgan, and as I caught her eye she put her finger on her lips and then vanished down the hall. I said nothing but looked at the heap of debris.
"After a minute's silence Mr. Morgan said, 'Well, what are you going to do about it?'