The ongoing mis-adventures of Thomas A. Edison


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.

Image courtesy Flickr user B.Sandman, via CC


  1. This is a great topic. So much fascinating stuff out there, particularly about the battle between alternating and direct current. (I won’t spill the beans as I suspect you have a lot of the good material queued up).

  2. This is pretty much what happened when I lived in an RV that was plugged into a wrongly wired outlet. Every metal surface in the place became a joy buzzer.

    Bigger picture, I love that idea where you’re not going to the hardware store for a drill, you’re going there because you need a hole. I want to re-think everything we use energy for, and get away from the one size fits all industrialized market idea.

    Having a house with compressed air lines to power things would be fun. And being able to black out an entire city for one night so we could watch a meteor shower, and occasionally see the milky way.

    I don’t see a shortage of energy, it’s a shortage of imagination where it counts. We need to be at least as conversant in the language of political power, as we are with electrical power.

  3. Whenever I read a phrase like ‘America’s most prolific inventor’ in relation to Thomas Edison I cringe. It seems more appropriate to call him what he was, America’s most famous patent troll. He didn’t really invent much of anything, but rather took credit for the work of others. What was he really? A ruthless, even somewhat vicious businessman. Genius inventor? Hardly.

    I certainly hope that you are going to get to the meat of the subject of Mr Edison, namely what a douchebag he was…

    1. The deliberate FUD he spread to discredit Tesla, that’s what enthroned him in my mind as a classic capitalist. How many people today think we owe AC power to Con Ed?

      It would be interesting to follow up on the life stories of some more of his victims.

  4. “—in order to avoid some of the less-fun consequences of climate change—”

    Oh, c’mon, does anyone really believe any more that society’s leaders can act *before* they’ve been spanked?

    It’s going to have to get much worse-‘too late’ worse- before the current power structure will allow itself to be replaced.

    OTOH, if you’re talkin’ ’bout another industrial revolution, one where the little people do okay, then I’m all ears.

  5. I look forward to the release of the book, Maggie. If you haven’t already, check out “A Thousand Barrels a Second” by Peter Tertzakian. It sounds like your piece runs to parallel to his.

  6. Thomas Edison and Henry Ford teamed up before WWI to create energy independence based upon natural gas combined heat and power units, backyard windmills, and advanced batteries. Edwin Black tells the story in his book _Internal Combustion: How Corporations and Governments Addicted the World to Oil and Derailed the Alternatives_.

    My precis of the story is at

  7. Both Edison and Tesla were brilliant.

    Both also had flaws and blindspots.

    Edison couldn’t come to grips with AC, but he was a team player and a system thinker. His DC electrical system was thought out quite carefully as a consumer product. But he stubbornly clung to it and lost out to Westinghouse.

    Tesla was a guy of visionary intelligence but he couldn’t come to grips with people. And he apparently couldn’t wrap his head around quantum theory.

  8. If Edison had won we would have copper bars for transmission lines instead of high tension wire. His system was doomed from the get go. On a small scale it works, for example the city block and power station he designed and installed. If DC was the standard, every city would be like LA with 10 times the polution in the air. Now the problem with new so called clean energy solutions isnt the tech. its the current power companies and there power over our Goverment. For example the origonal clean fuel cell car was developed in the 1970’s but the guy who invented it disapeared with all his research and prototype. He and his prototype is literaly buried in the nevada desert somewhere. The same fuel cell system is now beign used to creat electricity. you can only wonder how long it will take Edison International and IID to make that go away.

    1. [Citation Needed]

      That said, I think you might be interested to know that Wired’s Alexis Madrigal is writing a book about the history of green energy technology in America, called Inventing Green. It is very well-cited and should be out soon. I’m really looking forward to reading it. You can check out his research blog at

    2. A. Please don’t spread your crazy conspiracy theories. It upsets me when people claim corporate America squashes the equivalent of perpetual motion technology because 1) it undermines hard work by people like myself, my colleagues and 100,000s of engineers who work every day to progress, 2) it demonstrates a lack of understanding of science and the scientific process, 3) it can not happen to the extent that unthinking cynics claim.

      B. the bloombox is not the resurrection of some hidden 1970s technology. there has been published science on solid oxide fuel cells for over 80 years. The journalism (most notably 60min) covering this technology and company is about the worst I have ever seen on energy conversion.

      c. The major innovation of the bloom box is that it is quieter than a diesel engine. There could be others, like cost, combined heat and power, etc, but -none- are present today or in the near future. It does nothing to reduce greenhouse gas. IT does nothing to reduce dependence on fossil fuel.

  9. Maggie,

    Fellow S.MPLS resident hoping for a great success. However, to put it bluntly, the many books I read on this topic suck. They lack perspective that is given by patient understanding of orders-of-magnitude and thermodynamics, both in a very fundamental, abstract sense (completely divorced from engineering and widgets) IT takes about a page to present our energy problems and any potential solution given this background.

    FYI, I hope I don’t sound like an ass. It is my goal to teach scale and thermodynamics to the world and 3rd graders. Our biggest problem is that scale is never taught and thermo is reserved for a few college majors late in their education. This is the answer!, Better than any solar energy doo-dads I invent in the lab, anyway.

    1. Steve Jobs never claimed to invent or do anything technical. Thomas Edison was more like the the Bill G of his day. ’nuff said.

  10. while some crazy conspiracy theories are used to sell gimmicks, it is equally crazy to think energy research isn’t shaped by entrenched interests. Have you seen the silly BP ads on TV about the green energy research they are supposedly committed to? Or how quickly millions were invested in exploring shale gas once it was determined that huge deposits could be economically recovered from the Appalachian Marcellus Shale? I don’t think the conspiracy theories would persist if it wasn’t for the phony propaganda we are besieged with from fossil fuel industries. Get the greenwashing to stop, and the conspiracy theories will likewise diminish.

  11. The incident quoted at the top of this piece is from Edison His Life and Inventions. The etext is available at .
    I did an abridged narration of it which is available at .
    The amazing thing about his electrical system was that he had to design every last bit of hardware. He started from zero.
    Late in life Edison expressed regret that he and Tesla hadn’t worked together. At one time Tesla was an employee of Edison.

  12. The generally accepted theory among us laymen is AC won out over DC because of much lower losses tranmitting large quantities of power over long distances. There has recently been a lot of interest in long distance transmission using single conductor cable, carrying DC. The reason given is less line loss over long distances. The DC proposals all seem to involve underwater cable.

    1. The quick pros and cons of AC/DC;

      High-Voltage DC has less loss when used for long distance Point-To-Point transmission.
      This means that it can run from a generator (like a wind turbine, or under-water lines) to a load, and lose less power than AC.
      The problem is that it doesn’t work well with multiple sources and loads. What is know as Load Balancing is very tricky. AC on the other hand is self-balancing, making distribution networks possible.

      The other problem with DC is that the transmission needs to be High Voltage, but you need lower voltages in your house. With AC you just toss a transformer on the pole and your good. With DC, you have to turn it into AC before you can change the voltage, thus adding conversation loss, plus very expensive equipment.
      They do use HVDC for some long inter-connect lines tying different parts of the AC grid together, but again, they are point to point, and have converter stations at each end.

      Oh, and the wind generators (even the ones running into HVDC lines) actually produce AC, and then that is converted to DC. Just like a car Alternator. (think of the name!)
      Edison was right about some of the benefits of DC, and since he was only powering a short distance it worked. Tesla wanted to power the world, and realized that DC wouldn’t cut it. He actually invented AC on a walk, when he realized that everything in nature had a frequency to it. (He also based some of his ideas on the ancient Vedic texts, which are the basis for a lot of the eastern martial arts and philosophies. Especially Qi/Chi, etc.)

      1. I thought DC voltage is used to interconnect different grids and provide a sort of electrical isolation between them. AC grids that are tied together, have to share the same frequency and 3 phases of power and that produces potential surge issues…whereas DC ties and limit surges better?

  13. I would like to see a write up on conspiracy theories. Not so much on the theories themselves but things like…
    How often they turn out to be true. What kind of conspiracy happen. When and under what conditions conspiracies are perpetrated. Of course it would need to be spiced up with case studies.

  14. Actually, Con Ed was distributing DC power to a few remaining Edison Electric DC customers (in particularly, a bunch of elevators ran on DC). About four years ago they finally turned it off, and installed AC/DC converters.

  15. “Were people really nicer to each other back in the good old days?”

    Of course not! How could anyone ever think that?! Even compared to the 1970s, when house parties routinely turned into drunken fistfights, Americans today are by far more polite and less physically violent, racist, sexist, and generally rotten than they’ve ever been before. Even back in the 40s and 50s, educated writers like Mailer and Kerouac were out starting barfights for fun, and getting stitches and broken bones because of it. The 1800s and Edwardian era were even more crude, dirty, bigoted, and violent.

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