Picture of a single old fashioned light bulb

Electricity! Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, Steinmetz, and General Electric

December 2019

The December 21, 1879 edition of The New York Herald contained the story of Thomas Edison’s invention of the incandescent light bulb.

Francis Jehl, Edison’s lab assistant, recounts in Menlo Park Reminiscences (NYSL Call Number: Z 609.2 E23j4), that the managing editor of the Herald had not been consulted about the article and is said to have said: “Lights strung on wires!  You’ve made a laughing stock of the Herald.”

Edison was also reportedly not pleased that the article had been printed, as he wanted more time to refine his invention.  Jehl reported in Menlo Park Reminiscences quoting from an article in Electrical World and Engineer (NYSL Call Number: JQ 621.305  qE382wo): “Later Edison declared that it was the most accurate story of the time concerning his invention.”

This month, 140 years after the New York Herald broke the news about the invention of the electric lightbulb, the New York State Library exhibits items from our collections about the inventors of lightbulbs and the harnessers of electricity: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, Nikola Tesla, Charles Proteus Steinmetz, and the General Electric Company are featured in this exhibit.  Each of these inventors and the General Electric Company has a connection to New York State. 

Edison: His Life and Inventions book coverThomas Edison

Thomas Edison is the inventor of the incandescent lightbulb (among many other inventions!) and was a proponent of direct electrical current (DC).  In 1881 Edison’s Machine Works company set up in New York City.  Later the Machine Works company moved to Schenectady, NY when it was merged in with other companies to form Edison’s General Electric, which would become the General Electric Company in 1892.

Picture of Tesla holding a light bulbNikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla, an immigrant from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had originally worked with Thomas Edison when Tesla came to America.  But Tesla thought that alternating electric current (AC) was better than direct electrical current (DC), and he had a falling out with Edison.  Tesla’s patents on alternating electric current were purchased by George Westinghouse and the two worked together to promote alternating current as the more viable option to bring electricity to homes and businesses.

Picture of George Westinghouse ad Marguerite Erskine WestinghouseGeorge Westinghouse

George Westinghouse had grown up in Schenectady, NY and attended Union College.  His major invention was the air brake that made train travel much safer.  But Westinghouse was also interested in electricity, and he championed alternating electrical current (AC) and became a rival of Thomas Edison in the war of the currents.  In 1888 Westinghouse purchased Tesla’s patents on alternating current and the two worked together.  Westinghouse won the bid to provide electricity for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago using alternating current.  In 1896, Westinghouse Electric Company, using Tesla’s design for hydroelectric power from Niagara Falls, provided electricity to Buffalo, NY.

Steinmetz Era 1892-1923 book coverCharles Proteus Steinmetz

Charles Proteus Steinmetz immigrated from Poland in 1889. He began working for General Electric in 1892.  His inventions and lectures and writings improved on the lightbulb and addressed the issues of direct current and alternating current.  He was known as “the man who made lightning” and in 1922 gave a demonstration of this to Thomas Edison.

Men and Volts book jacketGeneral Electric

The last smaller case features books about the history of General Electric. 

On Display

Exhibit case with newspaperThe large exhibit cases showcase an enlarged copy of the New York Herald article of December 21, 1879 that broke the news of Edison's invention of the lightbulb. This article is copied from the microfilmed edition of the newspaper from the microfilmed newspapers collection of the New York State Library.

Exhibit case with articlesArticles written about electricity, the 1893 Columbian Exposition, and articles written by and about Edison, Westinghouse, Tesla and Steinmetz are included in the middle case from journal holdings of the New York State Library.
 

Exhibit case with advertisementsThe case on the right showcases advertisements from General Election, Westinghouse, and Edison Electric found in the journal holdings of the New York State Library. The articles and advertisements will be changed weekly.

Bibliography

Books

American Society of Mechanical Engineers. George Westinghouse commemoration; a forum presenting the career and achievements of George Westinghouse on the 90th anniversary of his birth, conducted by the American society of mechanical engineers, December 1, 1936. New York, The American society of mechanical engineers, 1937.
NYSL Call Number: Z 602.2, W52a5

Clark, Ronald William. Edison: the man who made the future.  New York : Putnam, 1977.
NYSL Call Number:  C  621.30924, E23, 78-28920

Davidson, George E.  Beehives of invention: Edison and his laboratories. Washington : Office of Publications, National Park Service: for sale by the Supt. of Docs., U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1973.
NYSL Call Number:  C 621.30924, E252

Dyer, Frank Lewis. Edison, his life and inventions. New York ; London : Harper & Bros., 1910.
NYSL Call Number: Z 602.2, E23d

The Edison era. Schenectady, N.Y. : Algonquin Chapter, Elfun Society, 1976
NYSL Call Number:  CQ 338.768, qG326, 77-36654, V.1

Essig, Mark Regan. Edison & the electric chair : a story of light and death.  New York : Walker & Company, 2003.
NYSL Call Number: C 364.66, E78, 204-1332

Friedel, Robert D.  Edison's electric light : the art of invention. Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.
NYSL Call Number: C 621.30924, F899, 86-35653, 2010

Garlin, Sender. Charles P. Steinmetz, scientist and socialist (1865-1923), including the complete Steinmetz-Lenin correspondence.New York : American Institute for Marxist Studies, c1977
NYSL Call Number: CQ 335.00924, qS823, 78-25258

Hammond, John Winthrop. Men and volts; the story of General Electric. Philadelphia, New York [etc.] J.B. Lippincott Company [c1941]
NYSL Call Number: Z  621.3, G32zh

Jehl, Francis. Menlo Park reminiscences. Dearborn, Mich., Edison institute, 1936.
NYSL Call Number: Z 609.2, E23j4

Jonnes, Jill. Empires of light : Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the race to electrify the world.  New York : Random House, c2003.
NYSL Call Number:  C 621.309, J77, 203-13061

Josephson, Matthew.  Edison.  New York : McGraw-Hill, c1959.
NYSL Call Number:  Z  609.2, E23j8

Keating, Paul W. Lamps for a brighter America; a history of the General Electric lamp business. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1954.
NYSL Call Number: Z 621.32065, G326k

Kline, Ronald R. Steinmetz : engineer and socialist. Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, c1992.
NYSL Call Number: C 621.3092, S823, 92-46819

George Westinghouse : his life and achievements.  Boston : Little, Brown, and Co., 1918,1919 printing.
NYSL Call Number: Z  609.2, W52L

Modern Jupiter; the story of Charles Proteus Steinmetz. New York, American Society of Mechanical Engineers [1958]
NYSL Call Number: C 621.3092, S823, 96-11182

Moran, Richard.  Executioner's current : Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the invention of the electric chair.  New York : Alfred A. Knopf, c2002.
NYSL Call Number: C 364.66097, M829, 203-1798

On the shoulders of giants, 1924-1946 : pioneering in a new era. Schenectady, N.Y. : Schenectady Elfun Society Territorial Council, 1979.
NYSL Call Number: CQ 338.768, qG326, 77-36654, V.3

Ratzlaff, John T. Dr. Nikola Tesla Bibliography. Palo Alto, Calif. : Ragusan Press, 1979.
NYSL Call Number: 016.6213, qT337, 80-30675

Seifer, Marc J. Wizard : the life and times of Nikola Tesla : biography of a genius.  Secaucus, N.J. : Carol Pub., c1996.
NYSL Call Number: C 621.3092, T337, 98-2936

Silverberg, Robert. Light for the world; Edison and the power industry. Princeton, N.J., Van Nostrand [1967]
NYSL Call Number: Z 609.2, E23s5

The Steinmetz era, 1892-1923. Schenectady, N.Y. : Schenectady Elfun Society, 1977.
NYSL Call Number: CQ 338.768, qG326, 77-36654, V.2

Stewart, Daniel Blair. Tesla : the modern sorcerer.  Berkeley, Calif. : Frog, c1999.
NYSL Call Number: C 621.3092, T337, 99-14486

United States. Dept. of the Interior.  Thomas Edison [braille] : National Historical Park, New Jersey.  Harpers Ferry, WV : National Park Service, Harpers Ferry Center, [2009]
NYSL Call Number: US-DOC I 29.155:ED 4

Walters, Helen B.  Nikola Tesla, giant of electricity. New York, Crowell [1961]
NYSL Call Number: Z 621.3092, T337w

Wise, George.  The General Electric story, 1876-1986 : a photohistory. Schenectady : Hall of History, c1989. 
NYSL Call Number: CQ 338.768, qG326, 77-36654, 1989

Journals

Edison, Thomas A. “The Beginnings of the Incandescent Lamp.” Electrical World and Engineer.  Vol XLIII, No 10, March 5, 1904
NYSL Call Number:  JQ 621.305, qE382wo 

“Glimpses of Steinmetz.” Electrical World and Engineer.  Vol XLIII, No 22, May 28, 1904
NYSL Call Number:  JQ 621.305, qE382wo 

Jehl, Francis.  “The Edison of 1879.” Electrical World.  Vol 84, No 12,  September 20, 1924
NYSL Call Number: JQ 621.305, qE382wo

“Mr. George Westinghouse”. Electrical World and Engineer.  Vol XLIII, No 1, January 2, 1904
NYSL Call Number:  JQ 621.305, qE382wo 

“New York Edison Company active in Red Cross work: Mrs. Thomas A. Edison Honorary Chairman in Preparedness Movement – Two Organizations Formed to Help.” Electrical World.  Vol 69, No 19,  May 12, 1917
NYSL Call Number: JQ 621.305, qE382wo

“Nikola Tesla.” Electrical World.  Vol 76, No 6, August 7, 1920  p. 272
NYSL Call Number: JQ 621.305, qE382wo

“Nikola Tesla becomes the recipient of Edison Medal.” Electrical World.  Vol 69, No 20,  May 19, 1917
NYSL Call Number: JQ 621.305, qE382wo

“Nikola Tesla is Awarded the Edison Medal by A.I.E.E.” Electrical World.  Vol 69, No 18,  May 5, 1917
NYSL Call Number: JQ 621.305, qE382wo

Scott, Charles F.  “Early Days in the Westinghouse Shops.” Electrical World.  Vol 84, No 12,  September 20, 1924
NYSL Call Number: JQ 621.305, qE382wo

Steinmetz, Charles Proteus.  “The Magnetite Arc Lamp.” Electrical World and Engineer.  Vol XLIII, No 21, May 21, 1904
NYSL Call Number:  JQ 621.305, qE382wo

Stillwell, Lewis B. “First Plant of the Niagara Falls Power Company.” Electrical World.  Vol 84, No 12,  September 20, 1924
NYSL Call Number: JQ 621.305, qE382wo

Terry, Charles Appleton.  “The Development of Alternating-Current Work in America.” Electrical World and Engineer.  Vol XLIII, No 10, March 5, 1904
NYSL Call Number:  JQ 621.305, qE382wo 

Tesla, Nikola.  “The Transmission of Electric Energy Without Wires.” Electrical World and Engineer.  Vol XLIII, No 10, March 5, 1904
NYSL Call Number:  JQ 621.305, qE382wo 

Various drawings of the 1893 Columbian Exposition/Chicago World’s Fair. The Electrical World: A Weekly Review of Current Progress in Electricity and its Practical Applications 1893
NYSL Call Number: JQ 621.305, qE382wo

Newspaper
“Edison’s Light.”  New York Herald.  Sunday, December 21, 1879, p. 5
NYSL Call Number:  NY 01 New York, 93-31979

Exhibit curated by Kerry Shermer

Last Updated: January 7, 2020