Thursday, August 11, 2011

Vegas... Paris... Roselle!

What do all of these places have in common?
  • Paris, France
  • Times Square, New York
  • Las Vegas, Nevada
  • Roselle, New Jersey
Roselle?  The Union County, Parkway exit 137 Roselle? In what universe does this small town stand as equal to the City of Light, Crossroads of America and Sin City?

The answer is simple: before any of those world-famous destinations could light up the night, one town had to be first, and that was Roselle.

After Thomas Edison perfected the incandescent light in 1879, he knew he had a lot more work to do if his invention was to be successful. What good would a light bulb be if you didn't have the power to use it? He and his muckers began work on an entire electrical system, including generators to make the electricity and the series of wires to bring that power from the generator to the individual lamps. By 1882, the Edison Illuminating Company had established the Pearl Street generating station in lower Manhattan and was supplying power to 59 customers via underground wires. Burying the distribution system under city streets was imperative, given the hazards already present in the nest of overhead telegraph wires strung above the sidewalks.

The work inherent in building an underground system is expensive and time consuming: Edison's crew had to do their work at night, carefully replacing the cobblestones they'd dug up, as not to disrupt daytime traffic. Thus, it's not surprising that the Wizard of Menlo Park would opt for overhead systems in less congested areas. Before he attempted to sell the systems in small towns, though, he'd have to do some tests. Could he, in fact, build a system that would electrify an entire community from a central generating plant?

That's where Roselle comes in. Just nine miles from his Menlo Park labs (though he was doing much of his work in New York at the time), the community was small enough to be lit almost entirely by a demonstration-size generation and distribution system. It's likely the townspeople were also very receptive to the concept of their homes and businesses being electrified, as only the very wealthy in New York had that privilege.

On January 19, 1883, Roselle took its place in technology history when the first overhead wire-equipped electric lighting system went into service. When all was said and done, Edison's system included a steam powered generator at West First and Locust Streets, serving local businesses, about 40 houses and some 150 street lights. The First Presbyterian Church of Roselle also made history by installing a 30 bulb electrolier, becoming the world's first church to use electrical lighting. More importantly, once the effectiveness and safety of Roselle's Edison system was proven, other towns clamored to switch from gas lighting to electricity.

Today, Roselle's status as New Jersey's (and the world's) first truly electric place is left pretty much to obscurity. There's a plaque outside a lumber store at the corner of West First and Locust Streets, but it's not readable from the road, nor is there any other marker to memorialize the history made there. The building may be Edison's original, I don't know, but I do seem to recall something to that effect being posted on the outside wall when I was a kid. Any thoughts?

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