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


22 Responses to “How Thomas Edison set W. H. Vanderbilt's house on fire”

  1. Ernunnos says:

    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.

  2. gwailo_joe says:

    (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.)

  3. Anonymous says:

    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.

  4. Anonymous says:

    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.

  5. Anonymous says:

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

  6. Anonymous says:

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

    Provided that the frequency is greater than 30Hz…

  7. Anonymous says:

    Should have used solar power. *smirk*

  8. Antinous / Moderator says:

    Did he died?

  9. middleclass says:

    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.

  10. MichaelWalsh says:

    Source for the quote?

    • Avram / Moderator says:

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


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

    • Maggie Koerth-Baker says:

      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.

  12. Mr. Protocol says:

    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.

    • neward says:

      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.

    • travispulley says:

      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.

  13. Anonymous says:

    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?

  14. Anonymous says:

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


    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.

  16. Anonymous says:

    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.

    • mdh says:

      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.

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