This project has become, in some ways, simpler for me, and at the same time, more complex (though arguably, not necessarily more difficult).  Initially, I had devised a plan for creating a more or less faceless visualization of data over time that would represent the location of the electrical grid in New York City, and also chart its usage over time.  I refer to it as being faceless because my goal was (and still is, eventually) to create a tool that researchers could use to understand the structural forces at play in relation to the phenomenon of electricity.  Future researchers would be free to take this data as an uninflected stream of information that simply presented the fact of electrical infrastructure and usage over time; it would then be up to them to make assumptions, combine it with their own data or findings, and make their own hypotheses or stories about how the city changed over time, being able to draw upon this visualization of how electricity traced a path through the various neighborhoods and industries of the city.

While the beginnings of such a thing are have poked out through my research and onto my map and related records, the result as it exists is not quite as sterile and faceless as I had hoped it would be, nor is it yet as expansive.  The history of electricity in New York is, of course, tied very closely to the work of Thomas Edison in New York City.  He chose New York as the site for his most ambitious experiment to date: to devise an electrical grid that would, via buried cables, supply electricity to his lamps that he sold to businesses, residences, and municipal concerns.  This electricity would be supplied, of course, by a single central station – this was his innovation: not to bring electricity to those who wanted it, but to supply it from a single place.

So then the early days of electrification in New York were not merely based on structural factors, but by what Edison and his cohorts were capable of achieving.  They designated the first district because it was not a residential zone, but also because it contained a number of high-profile operations, such as newspapers, the stock exchange, banks, and marketplaces.  His goal was twofold: if things went haywire, it was not a major concern, because nobody really was in the First District much after nightfall (when lights were needed most); and, if things went well (which Edison was supremely confident that they would), he would have wealthy, influential people praising his new system.

So while the early days were driven by particular concerns over availability of property and capital for Edison’s company, as well as on his own specific strategies of experimentation and implementation, the later stages would prove to be driven more plainly by the structural forces of demand (though often there were serious conflicts with local government regulators and competitors).

What the result has been, then, is that this project does more to tell the story of the early days of the Edison Illuminating Company’s founding and expansion than to give an unbiased picture of electrical development in the city as  a whole.  However, I have resisted the temptation of trying to make a history or documentary in a narrative sense of Edison or the First District.  There is, within the prescribed boundaries of Edison Company actions, a certain hint of that facelessness that I alluded to before, and I still hope to expand up that (or have other researchers contribute to it as well).

A few words on my methods:

While much time and energy was spent researching municipal records and various histories of the city in the NYU library, the New York Public Library, and the New York Historical Society, and the archives of the EEEF, by far the most valuable information has come from the Edison Company itself, mainly via the Edison Papers housed at Rutgers University (and their wonderful online digital collections).  The trove of Bulletins written by the company in its early years – partially as documentation, partially to inform their agents about the worldwide doings of the company, partially for advertising/propaganda purposes (especially in the early years, they relentlessly attack their competitors, critics of Edison’s work and ideas, and the apparently rampant dangers associated with gas lighting; all of this would be fodder for an entirely different kind of project)- provided me with a large amount of hard data that I could use – what was built when, which buildings were connected to the grid, which buildings had their own power generators – as well as even more data that I did not know how to use – specifications of efficiency for various Edison products, defenses written by Edison himself of the methods he used for designing motors and dynamos and batteries, and so on.  Additionally, the Columbia University archives possessed a much smaller, but extremely valuable set of documents related to the company: annual reports furnished to the board of directors during the 1890s.  These documents, among other things, contained the maps that, as I far as I have found, are the only record of how the company’s underground networks were designed and expanded upon.

While it is difficult to reconcile completing this course without coming to a satisfactory conclusion to this project – because really, it can be added to almost infinitely – I will have to instead be satisfied that I have reached a satisfactory beginning to this project.