How Thomas Edison set W. H. Vanderbilt's house on fire

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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.

Image courtesy Flickr user cocreatr, via CC

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.



  1. I feel as though the boiler was just the last straw, given their propensity to explode. Awesome story. This is why foolish projects get banished to the garage.

    1. I’m guessing the source would be Edison’s autobiographical notes, mentioned in the first paragraph.

  2. Electricity is predictable. Boilers, not so much. I’d sleep above one only if the guy who maintained it slept next to it.

    1. At this point, electricity wasn’t exactly predictable, either. There’s a few more fun stories where this comes from. I’ll post a few over next couple days.

  3. What he said. Boilers are amazingly destructive behemoths. There are no small accidents with boilers. We tend to forget because they’re not around any more. Imagine how we’d feel, for example, if two commercial 747 pilots decided to hold a speed race on the LA-to-NY run. Now look up what happened to a Mississippi riverboat when the boiler blew during a race.

    1. The Sultana was not in a race. One of its boilers had been hastily repaired (they really shoulda replaced it, or used a thicker plate). And since it was packed with nearly 2,000 people (about 5x more than it was designed for), it listed severely over the few hours it spent making its way up the Mississippi.

      This severe listing would distribute the four boilers’ water back and forth as it listed from side to side. The fires would make the low boiler very hot so that when water flowed back into it, it would steam right away and create a burst of pressure. Higher water levels in the boilers would have mitigated this.

      And as for boilers not being around any more? Yeah… no.

    2. I’ve been on a transatlantic flight (CDG-> EWR maybe?) where our plane was racing another. I was sitting next to a Catholic priest of some sort who notified the stewardess about another plane which was remarkably close. She came back from the cockpit to explain we were racing.

  4. This would be an awesome turning point for an alternate history novel.

    Hindenburg burning killed the Zepplin biz. What if this had killed the electricity biz?

  5. I have a few fun electricity stories of my own, but I’m going to sit on them until my next Make article comes out. No point in scaring people off.
    For anyone wondering still wondering about the Thermionic ElectroModulator MK VIII Steampunk tube amplifier promised here 2 years ago, the development stage ended abruptly but you can barely see the scar.

  6. We’re coming up on the anniversary of the Sultana disaster. Mrs. Vanderbilt would have been in her mid-40s when that happened. Ordinary wood stove boilers killed their fair share too. No doubt she was aware of both. Not an imprudent demand, considering.

  7. I have to agree, I love steam tech and all, but boilers are damned scary at times; I definitely wouldn’t want to live on top of one.

  8. Edison was an advocate of Direct Current. One big problem with DC power is that when an arc forms it tends to be continuous and hot, often burning all the way back to insulation that can quench it, often burning further. My Grandfather experienced this and only just managed to disconnect the leads before they arced back into the wall. Alternating current, on the other hand, is at zero voltage at least 60 times a second, which can be enough to quench the arc.

  9. Uh, there are still lots of boilers. The are much safer now because the technology is better, and they are highly regulated in manufacturer and maintenance. Oddly enough, no one seems to mention boilers when deregulation or self-regulation is discussed.

    1. that’s because the regulation is being done by your insurance company rather than the government.

      As the real estate market shows, regulation by the wealthy is a much better system for all. (that’s irony)

      All I know for sure is that in 1890 both boilers and elephants were terribly dangerous things.

  10. (They creep, Watson had said … no, not the hedges, the boiler. You have to watch it all the time or you and your fambly will end up on the fuckin moon.)

  11. And just like our financial system, boilers work much better once you wire down all the safety valves….

  12. I’m thinking this was about a steam engine boiler for the powerplant, something that operates under higher presure than a water heating boiler.

  13. “Alternating current, on the other hand, is at zero voltage at least 60 times a second,”

    Provided that the frequency is greater than 30Hz…

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