Who Built the First Power Plant in the United States?

Are you wondering who built the first power plant in the US? Learn the fascinating origin of electric utility here.

Who Built the First Power Plant in the United States?
The first US central power plant on Pearl Street in New York City. Photo: Wikimedia.

Energy production has come a long way since the industrial revolution. One such major advancement in the way energy is created and stored revolves around the advent of the power plant. Here’s everything you need to know about the first US power plant.

Edison Illuminating Company built the first US power plant, called Pearl Street Station, and it was located at 255-257 Pearl Street in Manhattan, New York City.

The history of the power plant spans much farther than the first commercial US power plant. The rest of this article will dive into the story of the first power plant built in America.

A Brief History of Power Plants

The need for storing and using electric power prompted the need for power plants. Thomas Alva Edison, inventor and tinkerer, would invent the first practical incandescent carbon-filament lightbulb.

Standing on the shoulders of giants, who had already made great strides towards constant voltage, lamp design, and other components necessary to producing incandescent lighting, Edison developed his first prototype in October of 1879.

The story of his thousands of experiments with filaments is well known and doesn’t bear repeating, but what is not so well known is that Edison put a great deal of forethought to the practicality of incandescent lighting.

Long before Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, he realized he would need an effective way to generate, deliver, utilize, and store electric energy.

To this effect, Edison and his associates, again building on the work of inventors past, developed a way to implement electric lighting in a practical fashion. Some of the considerations Edison and company needed to keep in mind including the following:

  • A parallel circuit for his high-resistance filament lamp
  • Improvements to the voltage dynamo
  • Junction boxes
  • Safety fuses
  • Insulating materials
  • Consumption meter
  • Light fixtures and switches

In light of these challenges regarding the practicality of incandescent lighting, Edison set up companies that could manufacture the needed components and equipment.

As his vision came to life, Edison announced his plans to the public: a full-scale central power plant in New York City. It was intended as a testament to the effectiveness of DC systems and their commercial viability.

Edison launched two plants, the Edison Electric Light Station in London, and the Pearl Street Station.

The first was the London-based Edison Electric Light Station, starting operations in January of 1882. Edison founded the plant, but his partner Edward Johnson was responsible for managing it.

The Edison Electric Light Station in London

The world’s first coal-powered station for generating electricity, Edison Electric Light Station started operations shortly following the invention of the carbon-filament incandescent light bulb. The plant burned coal, powering a steam engine that drove a mammoth generator. The result was a DC output of over 100 volts

Initially, the station powered London’s streets, from Holborn Circus through to St. Marin’s Le Grand, expanding from 968 lamps to 3000 lamps shortly after opening. It also provided power for several private residences

Unfortunately, Edison’s vision in London would prove to be too ahead of its time, as the plant ran at a loss since its opening and closed near the end of 1886.

The electric lamps installed on Holborn and St. Marin’s would be repurposed back into lamps.

Pearl Street Station

In 1882, Edison followed up with another power station in New York City, the first ever in the United States. Edison was no fool and chose his service area and market very carefully, well aware that he would have to do some serious convincing to impress the newspapers.

He chose the First District, a rectangular area with Wall Street to the south, Nassau Street to the west, Ferry Street to the north, and bounded by the East River on the east side.

A perfect blend of commercial and residential buildings, First District was the financial capital of the United States and home to several influential newspapers like the New York Times—a fact Edison clearly recognized.

Edison served as the chief engineer throughout the construction project, and just like the station in London, Pearl Station operated on a high-speed steam engine, purportedly operating 175 horsepower at 700 rpm.

The custom-made engines, designed by Porter-Allen, proved to be too unreliable, prompting their replacement with updated engines from Armington & Sims.

At opening time, the station served 82 customers with 400 lamps. Just two years later, the station had more than quadrupled its customer base and was powering over 10,000 lamps.

The steam engines, designed to provide grid electricity, produced a thermal byproduct that Edison would use to provide steam heating to nearby manufacturers and business owners on the Manhattan block.

The Retiring of Pearl Street

The first fully operational, continuous, and central-station electric utility power plant in the world, Pearl Street is a legend in its own right, and it’s fitting that the station had a peaceful retirement in 1895, just five years after a major fire caused extensive damage to the station.

Edison sold the two buildings that housed Pearl Street Station, and to date, only one of the Jumbo dynamos Edison and co-built for Pearl Street remain. “Old Number Nine” is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

In the end, Edison proved what he set out to do: incandescent lighting was a practical and commercially viable option, demonstrating the benefits of converting to electric power. Barring one interruption lasting only three hours, Pearl Street Station delivered power without fail, setting the standard for utility reliability.

Final Thoughts

Nowadays, most people take electric service for granted, taking power from the grid as and when they need it, but in the late 1800s, such a luxury would have been unfathomable. Thomas Edison and the brilliant minds that accompanied and forwarded his ideas set out to do something bold: prove that electric utility could be a sustainable way to provide power to millions.

Today, the Pearl Street Station site is a public parking facility with a simple bronze plaque that commemorates the momentous achievement that took place there—truly a small tribute to such a remarkable moment in history.