Electric High Society

Kathleen Dowling and Dana Hart

The gilded age in New York City: a time of tremendous growth in the American economy. This was the era of the Robber Barons, and captains of American industry created vast fortunes from the booming steel, railroad and finance industries.

This small number of incredibly affluent Americans left a lasting imprint on Manhattan. Their investment in scientific advancement, cultural institutions, and hotels that often bore their names were the focal points of New York high society activity.

While the gas business in New York was firmly established by the late 1870s, the work of Thomas Alva Edison, the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” was soon to cause great changes. In 1882, thirty-five year old Edison was an ambitious businessman who was determined to bring electric light to the urban center of the world’s fastest growing economy, New York City.

Incandescent bulb design was developed by both Edison and British inventor, Joseph Swan, however this invention was only one part of Edison’s overall business plan. Edison promoted his reputation as an inventor in the press, and his fighting spirit drew backing from J.P. Morgan and the Vanderbilt family.
With financial support from New York’s wealthiest, Edison established the Edison Electric Light Company to own and license his many patents in the electric lighting field and to pursue his dreams to electrify Manhattan.

After spending half a million dollars, and taking four years to complete, the Pearl Street Power Station finally opened on September 4th, 1882. In J.P. Morgan’s own business building, Edison flicked one of his patented light switches and 100 incandescent Edison bulbs flashed on, illuminating the interior. Edison then turned to a reporter from the New York Sun and said “I have accomplished all I promised.”
It was now possible for homes and businesses to purchase electric light at a price that could compete with gas. By October 1, 1882, under a month after the station opened, Edison Electric boasted fifty-nine customers and by December first the company had 203. Nearly a year later, 513!

In March of 1883, the Vanderbilts hosted a “fancy dress ball” to promote their family’s investment in electricity, and to celebrate Alva Vanderbilt’s palatial new mansion located at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-second Street. This grand affair continued the epic social duel between high society dames, Caroline Astor and Alva Vanderbilt. In order to further emphasize the Vanderbilt’s special endeavors in the world of electricity, Cornelius Vanderbilt’s wife, Alice, famously appeared costumed as “the Electric Light,” in a priceless dress designed by Charles Frederick Worth in Paris.

The gown of yellow and pink satin was covered with tinsel and gold, and Alice carried battery-powered lit torch. Well over a thousand invitations were sent, and police officers stood guard before the Vanderbilt mansion to corral the crowd of onlookers.

J. P. Morgan, John Jacob Astor, and W. K. Vanderbilt went on to give financial backing to The Niagara Falls Power Project, spearheaded by the Westinghouse Electric Company and conceived by the bright Croatian inventor working right under Edison’s nose, Nikola Tesla. This incredible engineering feat, completed on November 16, 1896, utilized hydroelectric power to create alternating current electricity, and became the foundation of electric power distribution as we know it today.

Shortly after the completion of the revolutionary project, investor tycoon J.P. Morgan became determined to take control over all US hydroelectric power. Despite manipulating the stock market, offering to purchase Tesla’s patents and attempting to drive the Westinghouse Electric Company out of the project, Morgan’s attempted monopoly failed and Tesla remained loyal to Westinghouse.

Nevertheless, the investors’ contributions to the Niagara Falls Power Project were rewarded and in a few short years cables were providing a steady flow of power to New York City. For the first time in history, electric trolleys and elevated railways bustled through Manhattan and Broadway was twinkling with thousands of lights.

This generation of wealthy financial investors and their families who had been born into a world powered by steam and lit by gas, had now truly become an electric high society.

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