This anecdote, taken from Edison's autobiographical notes, may well be one of the most awkward moments in the history of public relations.
So, William Henry Vanderbilt was an early investor in Thomas Edison's electric lighting endeavors, and it wasn't terribly surprising that Vanderbilt wanted to be one of the first kids on the block, so to speak, to get the new lights installed at his own house. This was prior to 1882—and the opening of the first centralized power plant—so the lights were run by an on-site generator installed in the basement. Sadly, the first demonstration of Vanderbilts' lighting system went a bit awry.
About 8 o'clock in the evening we lit it up and it was very good. Mr. Vanderbilt, his wife and some of his daughters cam in and were there a few minutes when a fire occurred. The large picture gallery was lined with silk cloth interwoven with fine metallic tinsel. In some manner, two wires had got crossed with the tinsel, which became red-hot and the whole wall was soon afire ... [the fire is put out] ... Mrs. Vanderbilt became hysterical and wanted to know where it came from. We told her we had the plant in the cellar, and when she learned we had a boiler there, she said she would not occupy the house; she would not live over a boiler. We had to take the whole installation out.
Lessons learned: Better insulation on your electrical wiring = good. Tinsel in your wallpaper = bad. Mrs. Vanderbilt = totally freaked out by the wrong thing.
Quote from "The Papers of Thomas A. Edison, Volume 6". Edited by Paul B. Israel, Louis Carlat, David Hochfelder, Theresa M. Collins and Brian C. Shipley. Published by Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.