Yesterday, Thomas Edison set W. H. Vanderbilt's house on fire. Today, America's most prolific inventor terrorizes the horses of New York City, and gets propositioned by unscrupulous businessmen.
But first, background. I'm currently writing a book about the mix of energy technologies we're going to have to adopt over the next 20 years—in order to avoid some of the less-fun consequences of climate change—and how changing the way we use energy will change the way we live.
As a reference, I'm taking a peek into the past, to see what happened the last time we radically altered our energy infrastructure. It's easy to forget, but electricity wasn't always the reliable, user-friendly energy source it is today. Once upon a time, it was just another unproven technology, with a lot of flabby bugs that needed a good working out. Hilarity, as they say, ensued.
Like the time a faulty junction box turned a major New York City intersection into one giant joy buzzer. It happened shortly after Thomas Edison opened the world's first commercial electric plant, at 255 Pearl Street, in 1882.
A policeman rushed in and told us to send an electrician at once up to the corner of Ann and Nassau Streets—some trouble. We found an immense crowd of men and boys there and in the adjoining streets—a perfect jam. There was a leak in one of our junction boxes and on account of the cellars extending under the street, the top soil had become insulated, and by means of this leak powerful currents were passing through this thin layer of moist earth.
When a horse went to pass over it he would get a very severe shock.
When I arrived I saw coming along the street a ragman with a dilapidated old horse, and one of the boys immediately told him to go over on the other side of the road—which was the place where the current leaked. The moment the horse struck the electrified soil he stood right straight up in the air, and then reared again, and the crowd yelled, the policemen yelled, and the horse started to run away.
This sort of thing kept happening until Edison and his men were able to get the current shut off, and the police were able to clear away the moderately sadistic crowd. (Were people really nicer to each other back in the good old days? I'm not so sure.)
The next day, Edison got a visitor ...
One man who had seen [the horse episode] came to me the next day and wanted me to put apparatus in for him at a place where they sold horses. He said he could make a fortune with it, because he could get old nags in there and make them act like thoroughbreeds.
Quoted text taken from Edison's autobiographical notes, recorded in "The Papers of Thomas A. Edison, Volume 6". Edited by Paul B. Israel, et. al. Published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 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.