When Thomas Edison tested the first lightbulb, where did he plug it in?

Ha, ha, just kidding. I think he used a battery. Seriously though, who can tell me about the origins of the electrical infrastructure that we so much take for granted today? When
did various appliances such as toasters and electric ovens become available? When were the voltages of outlets standardized, and the wattages of bulbs? I happened to
see a vintage 1912 lamp on an antiques show, and they said
it had all original wiring.

Also, how expensive was electricity compared with today?

Hoo Boy, you’ve hit on one of the great wars of the 20th century. AC vs DC. In this corner, the misunderstood genuis, Nikola Tesla! And in this corner, carrying the banner of Direct Current, the man with the backing and PR, Edison!

Seriously, it’s been ages since I did my paper on this, but the gist of it is both battled for their prospective ideas (with Edison actually inventing the electric chair). Who would have won is kinda moot. Tesla gained a backer in the name of Mr. Westinghouse, of General Electric fame. They were the first maker of generators, and they adopted AC as their standard. AC eventually won out. I don’t have my books or I’d write this up better.

Tesla also invented Radio, did you know that? :slight_smile:

Edison was able to say, “Joe Blow was Westinghoused to death at the state prison yesterday.”

The only answer to your bunch of questions that I can remember is that a single light bulb, when electricty was first piped into homes, might cost anywhere from $2 - $10 to run for an hour or so. That’s why your parents were always on your case to turn off the damn light. Because the great grandparents were on the grandparents case and the grandparents sure as hell were not going to let your parents run wild. And do you think money grows on trees young man?

After my father retired, he got bored and secured a job taking people on tours of the Edison winter home and gardens in Fort Myers, Florida. The home itself is, IIRC, the first pre-fabricated house in America. It was built somewhere in N.J. (I think) and then cut apart, shipped to Fort Myers and re-assembled. As part of the tour, people were allowed to go through Edison’s workshop and for a long time, one could pick up and examine chunks of the synthetic rubber Edison developed. Now the workshop is fenced off and people are no longer allowed to do the hands on thing. In that workshop are lightbulbs that were built there. They actually still work and are turned on at least once a year just to demonstrate that they do. Edison’s Model T Ford is still there and is driven once a year during the Fort Myers Pageant of Light–a parade and general tourist trap event honoring Edison. Edison touted Fort Myers to such an extent that eventually Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone bought estates on either side of Edison’s.

For a long time, there were a couple of old men who had actually been employed by Edison who hung around and chatted with people. Saint Zero, those old guys got livid over the mention of Tesla. It seems that Thomas Edison really had it in for Tesla and indoctrinated all his employees to be anti-Teslaites. In fact, my father picked up the anti-Tesla syndrome just from hanging around these guys. Sort of funny since he was an accountant all his life and about all he knew about electricity was that turning on a switch caused the light to operate.

If anyone here ever gets to Fort Myers, the tour of the Edison place is well worth taking. The Firestone and Ford estates are now city owned and are included on the tour. There is a museum on the premises with many early electrical appliances on view. Admission to the museum is included with the tour.

Sorry for rambling.

My sincere apologies for the halfbaked insights that follow. Hopefully someone with all the details will weigh in (pun intended, as you will see) soon. Away we go…

You asked about the price of electricity in the good ol’ days. Well, I believe that back in the g.o.d. there were no such things as numeric electric meters (that would tally up household consumption) that we have today. Instead, the feed from the electric company passed through these liquid-filled contraptions which (I’m guessing) looked like wet-cell batteries. The more juice you used, the more (or less, I forget) solid stuff came out of solution and deposited on the “electrodes.”

The “meter readers” of yore would WEIGH the solid stuff to figure your household electric consumption for that period.

I hope I got most of that right.

Just to pick nits, Edison didn’t invent the electric lamp. Humphry Davy invented the electric arc lamp before Edison was born. In the U.S., Edison usually gets the credit for the first practical electric incandescent lamp. In Britain, however, Joseph Swan often gets the credit. Swan produced a light bulb in 1860 that was impractical only because he couldn’t make a vacuum good enough. Both Edison’s and Swan’s practical incandescent lamps came out in 1880, when vacuum pump technology had improved.

The Edison museum in Ft. Myers is interesting and indeed worth the tour. Edison just didn’t invent a practical lightbulb (Swan’s were made with a platinum filament-not feasible to mfg.), he also masterminded the whole production and distribution of DC power-quite a feat for an uneducated inventor. The previous poster was correct-Edison fought Tesla on DC vs AC, but the fact remains that Edison solved the problem of practical electric illumination, in a way that is still used today (albeit with AC!). However, Edison was NOT a scientist-his lack of training led him down many blind alleys…and many of his chemical ventures (non-latex derived rubbers) were not commercially successful. He also lost a ton of money trying to mine iron ore in NJ-despite this, the man came up with alot of inventions that we use today.

While DC didn’t last as a distribution standard Thomas Alva plugged his first bulbs into the Edison socket, a standard that is still with us.

FWIW my mother grew up on a ranch that did not have utility power or telephone until she was long gone in the early sixties. Before then their electricity came from a wind charger tower and a basement full of lead-acid batteries. When the wind blew - a lot on the Montana prarie - they could leave lights on and iron clothes.

Um. Not to pick nits or anything, but NOBODY has actually responded to the OP Query. My understanding is that the first working incandescent didn’t have a metal threaded cap, that would screw into a porcelain and metal base. ( Called to this day in my business an Edison Socket ).
It simply had the wires leading out from it, and they were attached to the proper source. I can’t cite, I’m sorry. I remember this stuff from my ill-spent school days. Anyone have…like… A LINK WITH A PHOTO? Surely the event was documented up the wazoo photographically.


Well I did respond to the OP, but with an incorrect WAG.

One of the more bizarre wrinkles in the AC / DC fight was that Edison publically elecrocuted a circus elephant named topsy that had killed three people. He participated in this particular spectacle to demonstrate how dangerous AC was:


Gee, I hope this works.

<Sort of a Hijack>

The elephant wasn’t the only thing. Look into the first use of the electric chair in New York. In short, Thomas Alva made damn sure that “the Chair” was AC, and he didn’t do it by purchasing influence. It took a few zaps to do the job, and it was appearantly very unpleasant looking, smelling, etc for the witnesses. No one could doubt that AC power was deadly (not that DC won’t hurt you.)

Also, Tesla worked for Edison when he came up with the AC that we all love so dearly, but was let go 'cause he wore suits instead of greasy overalls, and Tommy hated that. Westinghouse hired Tesla, bought his patents cheap, fired him, and then ended up selling equipment built with Tesla’s patents to Edison.

A little later, Tesla goes barking mad (Obsesive / Compulsive) and starts working on a deathray. Tesla’s life is pretty interesting when he goes wacky, but Edison was kinda loopy too in his last days. He got into spiritualism and lost his edge. I get the impression that the AC verses DC thing really bothered him.

What is funny is that DC is now used for long distance high voltage transmission, so Edison is sort of vindicated.

Back to your question, though, do a search in the book stores. There are tons of books on this stuff including my favorite white washed version “Iron Men and Copper Wires”, by William A. Myers. For the scoop on Tesla’s OC thing, “Strange Brains” is pretty cool. Read the bio’s with a grain of salt. Newspaper articles from the period are the best way to get a good handle on what was going on, although the “Yellow” journalism period kind of overlaps the start of the electric companies.

You said:

"What is funny is that DC is now used for long distance high voltage transmission, so Edison is sort of vindicated. "

I thought there were large resistive losses with DC over a distance.


Fascinating. If I ever get down there, I’ll have to stop by and ask about him. :wink:

This is what I heard as well; the reason AC won out is because it is much more efficient over long distances, which was the requirement. DC was OK for a little coal generator powering a two-block town, but not for a giant powerplant powering an entire county.

I know the NYC subways had their high voltage current delivered AC, which they converted to DC (with a rotary converter) for the trains (variable-speed AC motors hadn’t been invented yet, so you used a DC motor with a bigass potentiometer.)

Don, I live in Québec and I know for a fact that high voltage(735Kv) transmission lines are AC. DC had big difficulties for traveling long distances, and Edison’s plans were to build DC producing powerhouses everywhere (of course those power plants would have used coal for fuel, wich would have been very polluting, vs Tesla’s AC current which production was demonstrated at Niagara Falls by a hydro-electric power plant) to palliate for the lack of transportability, instead of having fewer power plants and having long distance transport. Edison tried every way possible to discreditate AC (including public demonstrations of frying various living creatures with AC, trying to demonstrate how AC was dangerous, of course without saying that DC would have done roughly the same thing), but eventually got overwhelmed by AC, being much more practical. As for Tesla’s “death ray”, it was alledgedly a device made to shoot down planes by particle projection. It would use very fine ionised metal particles, projected forth by repulsive electromagnetic force.(a bit like today’s railguns. So that was the concept, but I have no information as to if it was ever fully operational)

I think resistive losses for a given transmission line only depends on current. AC is more “efficient” because you can use simple transformers to increase voltage. This decreases current (10,000V 1amp carries the same power as 100V 100 amp) which reduces resistive loss. With DC, it’s much more difficult to change the voltage.

I haven’t heard about DC used for transmission either. Can someone shed a light on this?

That’s exactly why we’ve used AC for 100 years. However, as you raise the line voltage, inductive resistance also increases. The 60Hz oscillation of electrons back and forth in the wire generates a pretty good amount of heat, and therefore power losses. (Any EE’s want to help me with the formulas?) Now that we know how to invert and rectify and otherwise adjust DC voltages with low losses, DC transmission is being used for very high voltage transmission (1MV+) over long distances, particularly in California, IIRC.