How early electric experiments destroyed the University of Missouri's main academic hall

I'm completely fascinated by stories from the early days of electricity ... specifically, stories of experiments that went horribly (and sometimes, comically) wrong.

For me, it's a great reminder that, no matter how much of a sure-thing a technology like electricity seems in retrospect, there was always a point in history where the future was uncertain, where mistakes were made, and where even the "experts" didn't totally know what they were doing. In general, I think it's good to remind ourselves that the real history of innovation is a lot messier than high-school level textbooks make it out to be.

In this short video, retired University of Missouri engineering professor Michael Devaney tells the tale of how a group of engineering students—armed with an early-model Edison electric generator—burned their school's main academic building to the ground. At the heart of the disaster: An attempt to see how many light bulbs the generator could light at once. To paraphrase Devaney, everything was going okay until the fire reached the ROTC's supply of cannon powder.

Read about how Thomas Edison himself set W.H. Vanderbilt's living room on fire.

Read about Thomas Edison and his staff accidentally turning a New York City intersection into a giant joy buzzer.

Read more on my thoughts about the messy history of innovation, published in last weekend's New York Times Magazine.

Thanks to Robert Solorzano and The Missourian for the tip on this story!



  1. I was a physics student at Montreal’s McGill University in the late 1960s… at the time, the physics building was an old, stately, granite building in the south-east corner of the university quadrant. The top floor was sealed-off; the story was that famous physicist Ernest Rutherford worked there in the early years of the 20th century – at the time, folks were relatively unaware of the dangers of radioactivity, and as a result of his experiments, the top floor remained a radiation hazard 60 or so years later. Might be an urban myth, though!

    1. says “Some of the equipment and personal effects of the famous scientist until recently resided in a museum on the top floor.  … In 1930, a meteorology station was added to the top of the building and in 1941 a fourth floor was added.” What I found neatest was “Knowing the nature of Physics experiments and the current needs of the field, he built the entire edifice using only wood, masonry, and copper, bronze and brass for the nails and fixtures. No iron or steel was used throughout, even in the radiators, to keep magnetic interference at a minimum.”

  2. Apparently Michael Faraday’s demonstrations of electromagnetism ultimately influenced the layout of Piccadilly Circus  in London – because of the immense crowds the demos tended to draw.

  3. Heh, i read a book a while back about early experiments with rocket fuels. Quite a few colorful descriptions of “energetic reactions” and the accompanying destruction of equipment (and remarkably few deaths).

  4. Tesla probably had the best Mad Scientist Mishap moments.  I believe that at one point he melted most of the generators in a hydro-electric dam.

  5. Up until Edison no one had done a systematic testing of core materials and windings for dynamos (generators) . A typical dynamo of the period was less than 20% efficient. Edison made dynamos that were 90%+ efficient. Until he built his generating station in lower Manhattan, generators hadn’t been run in parallel. There were telephone polls but everyone had loaded them with countless cables already. Edison opted to go underground. The hot spot in the street story is true. It was discovered by horses as they passed over it. Every piece of hardware for carrying cables and even the insulation on the cables themselves was devised by Edison as were all the connectors and a chemical reaction meter used to measure kilowatt hours. He started from zip. The light bulb was the least of it. His greatest invention was the research lab. Having never gone to college, degrees didn’t impress him. He was more impressed by people who could get things done.

    1. He was more impressed by people who could get things done.

      Explains why he didn’t like Tesla so much.

  6. Faraday never went to college yet by experiment he derived much of electrical theory. His lab journal was published as a two volume set in 1845. If someone has found it on the web please post a link. It is a model of clear writing and, with the diagrams, would permit one to duplicate his experiments.

  7. Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland, according to the book The Northern Lights, famously blew up the rail gun he invented in a room of generals and kings, noticed the smell, and went on to invent the process of fixing nitrogen to make fertilizer. He then took the proceeds from those sales, bought water rights to Norway’s rivers, and built the first hydro electric power plant, using the electricity to fix Nitrogen to make and sell fertilizer.  He then took the profits from that enterprise and mounted yet another expedition to discover the source of the aurora borealis.

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