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Discovering Context with IMLS

August 24, 2017 Archive Insight

THF164679

Bergmann & Company Edison Chemical Meter, Used at the City Hotel, Sunbury, Pennsylvania, 1883. THF164679

imls-logoAs work progresses on the Electrical Collection thanks to an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant, the fascinating context in which these objects were used is discovered. This Edison chemical meter used at the City Hotel in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, the first hotel commercially wired for electricity, and was part of the first three-wire power system in the world.

THF253939Following the success of the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York, the first central power station in the world, Thomas Edison sent his agent, P. B. Shaw, to find other ideal locations for more central power stations. The locations needed to have high gas prices to make the switch to electric lights appealing, and inexpensive fuel to help compete in the lighting business.

Shaw traveled the Coal Region of Pennsylvania to find a place that met the criteria, and organized multiple Edison Electric Illuminating Companies including Shamokin (1882), Sunbury (July 1883), and Mount Carmel (November 1883). The site selected in Sunbury backed up onto a stream flowing down from Shamokin, which would deposit coal on its banks after heavy rainfall or melting snow. Sunbury’s high cost of gas, free coal, and proximity to water meant that it was the perfect location for a power plant; however, the location was outside the town’s business center, which would add to the cost due to the length of wires needing to be strung from the power plant to potential customers.

To offset costs, Edison took a party of potential donors on his electric railway to demonstrate his innovative technology. After the demonstration, Edison was inspired to improve his two-wire system in use in New York by adding a third-wire to act as a neutral line, as well as using two dynamos to generate 220 volts while still allowing 110 volt lamp usage to ensure consistent distribution of power throughout the long wires. After a brief test, Edison applied for a patent and the three wires with conductors were strung to the City Hotel, thus making it the first building to be commercially wired for electricity and Sunbury the first city to have three wire commercial direct current incandescent lighting and overhead conductors.

On July 4, 1883, the City Hotel of Sunbury became the first building lit with incandescent carbon-filament light bulbs using the three wire system. To measure the electricity used by the hotel, an Edison Chemical Meter, one of the first electric wattmeters, was installed. These electrolytic meters measured electricity through electroplating, but needed to be removed and measured at the central station in order to bill customers. The meters were reliable, despite the cumbersome method for billing, but were phased out in the 1890s and replaced by mechanical meters, which were easier to read.

Laura Lipp is a Collections Specialist at The Henry Ford.

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