On September 4, 1882, the electrical age began. That day, Thomas Edison’s Edison Illuminating Company flipped the switch on his power station on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan, providing electricity to homes at a price comparable to gas. By the end of the month, they had 59 customers. By the next year, they had 513.

Detail from an illustration from the June 21, 1882, Harper's Weekly titled "The Electric Light In Houses : Laying The Tubes For Wires In The Streets Of New York." It depicts the construction of Thomas Edison's first domestic incandescent lamp electric utility in New York City with the central station at Pearl Street.

Electricity had been discovered for some time, though this was the beginning of its real, practical, commercial usage. Before then, it was more of a novelty, used in things like this children’s toy! Objects being illuminated would have been like this copper oil lamp, which was converted for electric use.

(Left) Davis & Kidder’s Patent Magneto-Electric Machine, ca. 1854, Gift of Joseph Nathan Kane; (right) Lamp, 1880-1910, New-York Historical Society, Gift of Bella C. Landauer

Thomas Edison was using DC (Direct Current) to power those buildings, though now it’s used mainly for lower voltage items. AC (Alternating Current) is commonly used for businesses and residences. In the late-1880s, Edison and George Westinghouse (using patents made by Nikola Tesla) engaged in what’s known as the “War of Currents,” battling for popularity as the world’s electric demand grew.

Edison decided to use the power of spectacle to slander AC. In 1903, Topsy the elephant, a circus attraction, was to be put to death for attacking a trainer (the trainer fed her a lit cigarette, so Topsy hardly had a baffling response). Thomas Edison proposed to use the occasion to demonstrate the dangers of AC, which was being considered by New York City. Using techniques perfected during the course of his secret work on an execution tool for humans—the electric chair—he arranged to have Topsy fed carrots laced with sixteen ounces of potassium cyanide and then shod with wooden sandals lined with copper and draped with wires. After the switch was pulled, the elephant died in less than a minute.

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