Here’s a famous story: Alex Dow, manager of the Edison Illuminating Company of Detroit, saw promise in his young chief engineer, and in 1896, he invited the engineer to join him at a conference in New York. One night, at a dinner with Thomas Edison, Dow introduced his chief engineer thusly: “There’s a young fellow who has made a gas car.”
Dow said it laughingly — A gas car! At the dawn of the electric age! — and related a story about the engineer’s prototype “pop-pop-popping” along the street in front of the station. But after some discussion about the car’s technology and the engineer’s development of an improved sparked plug, Edison banged the table and said to the engineer: “Young man, that’s the thing. You have it. Keep at it.”
The chief engineer, of course, was Henry Ford, and this story is famous because it’s about following your dreams and pursuing your genius in the face of a doubting world. But hidden inside of this platitudinal story is another more surprising one, a story we take for granted: In pioneering a gas-powered automobile, Ford was out of step with the innovation of his time. We know the story of Ford. We don’t know the story of the step. And the step was epic. On a scale of one to “changed everything,” the world-transforming rise of electricity competes pretty capably with the Model T.
“We like to think that our generation has lived through the greatest technological transformational change,” says Jeff Horner, a lecturer in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at Wayne State University. But in the late 1800s and early 1900s, “we figured out how to harness electricity as a serious source of power in a very short period of time — 10 or 15 years.”
“It was much bigger than the internet,” he says.
The rise of electricity fueled creativity, drove unprecedented business growth, and gave people a reason to walk around at night. And where and how we get our electricity in the next 10, 20, or 40 years could have an equally transformative impact on our lives, our cities, our economy, and how we live in our environment.
The lights come on
Detroit’s first experiment in lighting its streets was a failure. In 1834, before Michigan was even a state, the city installed twenty whale oil-fueled lamps on Jefferson Avenue between Cass and Randolph streets and hired a lamplighter, James Delaney, to light them. The lamps went out about three months later; so did the plan.
Over a decade later, Detroit’s first gas lighting companies were organized, and the streets at last began to glow. In 1851, the Detroit Free Press reported a happy consequence of the new lights: Shopkeepers began to deck out their storefronts with elaborate window displays, and to light them up magnificently in the evenings.
“One needs not now to visit Broadway … to see a magnificent array of shop windows,” the paper reported. Jefferson and Woodward avenues were bright with light and bustle. “A more brilliant promenade than is now offered on pleasant evenings…can hardly be found in any city in the Union.”
“Cities without gas lamps weren’t considered civilized,” says Fred Shell, vice president of corporate and government affairs at DTE Energy. “If you wanted a city that would grow and prosper, you needed to have gas lamps.”
The gas lights burned in homes and in street lamps for 30 years, and they burn still in our imagination of old-world urban romance. (Gas-operated lamps were recently re-installed on Agnes St., in West Village.) But the gas light system created dim pools of light and deep shadows, required an army of city-employed lamplighters to operate, and — at least in this city — caused a heap of corporate contention (at one point, sparring gas companies simply split their service territories west-to-east along Woodward Avenue). The gas companies fought viciously, but without victory, to resist the creep of electricity into Detroit’s utility sector.
Electric arc lights, sizzling bright, came to Detroit in 1879 as part of a traveling circus that boasted as its main attraction 18 electrically-lit chandeliers; in 1880 one local entrepreneur, Wells W. Leggett, powered from the engine of the Free Press building a total of 17 electric lights to a handful of downtown Detroit businesses. In 1883, Detroit had its first glimpse of Edison’s incandescent light bulb. It was turned on in front of a crowd of spectators at Metcalf Bros. dry goods store.
But the landscape really changed in 1884 when the city contracted the Brush Electric Light Company to build 122 electric light towers to illuminate Detroit. These towers were 150 feet high with a ring of electric arc lights at the top. Their lights were bright as the moon; sometimes they are still called “moonlight towers.”
These lights were not perfect. Some people complained of the glare; it was speculated that the day’s fashion of large women’s hats may have been a practical fad thanks to the light-blocking properties of those wide brims. People had a hard time sleeping. The efficacy of the lights was questionable. In the densest parts of the city, the light struck tall buildings and cast long shadows. In Detroit’s heavily wooded residential areas, the lights were so tall that they mostly illuminated the treetops.
But Detroit’s system of tower lights was one of the nation’s most ambitious, and by the late 1880s, Detroit was widely considered one of the best-lighted cities in the world.
Perhaps most significantly, the tower lights started a conversation about who really owned public lighting and electrical utilities. Almost as soon as he took office in 1890, progressive Mayor Hazen S. Pingree started to agitate the Common Council to build a municipally owned and operated power plant.
“Lighting the streets is as much a public matter as street paving and cleaning, sewer building, maintaining and improving the parks and boulevards, supplying water or providing protection against fire,” Pingree said in an address to the Common Council in 1890. By 1893, construction of Detroit’s city-owned power plant was underway. The resulting power station at Atwater and Randolph on the riverfront and its successor, the Mistersky Power Plant (opened in 1927), would bring light to the streets of Detroit until 2010 when Mistersky was decommissioned and the city decided to source all of its electricity from DTE.
Not-insignificant historical footnote: Detroit appointed as the first chief engineer of the city’s power plant a Scottish immigrant named Alex Dow.
The rise of Detroit Edison
“Detroit’s decision to build and maintain the Public Lighting Commission’s plant, as an alternative to contracting with an arc light company, was well nigh fatal to the two surviving arc light companies, for there was hardly enough private arc business for one,” wrote Raymond C. Miller in “The Force of Energy: A Business History of the Detroit Edison Company.”
In 1903, as the old arc light companies began to falter and competing electrical service companies began to consume one another, Detroit Edison was incorporated to help bring order to the mismatched power plants, voltages, and equipment that were the legacy of the failed or consolidated electric companies. (Edison Illuminating Company and its rival Peninsular Electric Light Company, purchased by Detroit Edison, were operated as independent subsidiaries for some time.)
That year the population of Detroit was about 300,000. Detroit Edison’s companies supplied less than 10 percent of the population with power. When the company made plans for its first power plant at Delray in 1903, it predicted that the plant, with its 6,000 kilowatt generating capacity, would supply all of the power Detroit would need for the next 20 years.
But the rise of electricity begat the rise of more electricity. In 1896, Detroit had begun to retire the horses that drew its streetcars and convert its mass transit system to electric power.
“To me, the biggest impact on harnessing electricity wasn’t street lights — that was the easy part,” says Jeff Horner. “Where it really transformed cities was in electric streetcars. You could live far away from your job and still get to work for a nickel.”
Henry Ford’s wacky idea, the gas-powered automobile, began to drive that change, too. As it became a more common sight on the streets of Detroit, Detroiters began to realize the need for better-lit intersections and traffic lights. What if you were to step off your pokey horse-drawn carriage and not see a horseless carriage barreling your way? (Ford Motor Company, by the way, was also incorporated in 1903.) Meanwhile, the growing city of Detroit, with a population that had ballooned to nearly half a million people by the year 1910, annexed farmlands and independent villages and townships, which — surprise! — needed electricity, too.
An era of innovation
Clever humans started to invent electrified versions of previously human-, steam-, or gas-powered technologies. An inventor in Flint, Lloyd Copeman, founded the Copeman Electric Stove company, manufacturer of “the fireless cooker,” in 1912. People who had been carriage makers (William Durant, founder of General Motors, and the Fisher brothers) and bicycle makers (John and Horace Dodge) and plumbers (David Dunbar Buick) turned their attention to the emerging automotive industry and the increased manufacturing capacity that electricity could provide. Clunky steam-powered elevators gave way to more reliable and efficient electric elevators, which spurred the construction of new and taller skyscrapers; in Detroit, the Wright-Kay Building, constructed in 1891, was one of the first Detroit buildings to include an electric elevator.
“Innovation in Detroit required innovation in the energy industry,” says Fred Shell. “Institutions like Detroit Edison had to be innovative and successful for the rest of the economy to be innovative and successful.”
The more electrical appliances we invented; the more electric street lights we switched on in our growing neighborhoods; the more factories we powered with electricity, the more demand for more electricity skyrocketed.
In 1906, when Detroit Edison built its second power plant in Delray, executives were concerned that the growing demand for electricity could be a passing phase. What if supply outpaced demand? The new plant had a generating capacity of 14,000 kilowatts, more than double Delray 1. To plan for the contingency, the company came up with a creative solution: If the market for electrical power bottomed out, they would sell exhaust steam, a byproduct of electricity generation, to the nearby salt mines.
By 1914, the population of the city was approaching 700,000 and had more than doubled in 10 years. In the same period of time, its use of electricity had increased twenty-fold. 64,000 residences and 24,000 stores and factories were powered by electricity and illuminated by electric light. Detroit printed its newspapers, brewed its beer, and manufactured its cigars, pharmaceuticals, shoes, and sheet music in electrically-powered factories. And nearly all of that electricity (save for the street lights) was provided by Detroit Edison or the subsidiaries it had purchased in 1903.
And electricity was cheap. In 1913, with a single cent’s worth of electricity, you could bring two quarts of water to a boil, operate a sewing machine motor for three hours, make a Welsh rabbit in an electric chafing dish, make four cups of coffee in an electric percolator, or heat an electric curling iron once a day for two weeks, according to a report in the Detroit Free Press. It was a far cry from the labor it took for people to make, say, tallow candles, as they had done less than a century earlier. (For more on the labor-to-energy equation and how drastically it has changed over time, check out this episode of NPR’s Planet Money on the history of light.)
Views of the future
We no longer shield our eyes from the glare of artificial light. We do not have reason to fear death by accidental electrocution — for the most part. When we notice our street lights, it is usually because they are out; on a daily basis, we are probably most interested in electricity when our cell phones are about to die. We’ve come a long way since the oil lamp, but we’ve got a lot further to go.