March 3, 1888

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Anglo-American Relations; New York City, Technology; Technology, Electrical Power;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

New York City;

(Time 5:30 A. M.)

Newly Arrived and Bewildered Britisher.

"My goo'ness grashush! jes' look at all the sparrows!"

This Harper’s Weekly cartoon reveals the confused amazement of a British visitor to New York City upon seeing rows of utility poles from a platform of the elevated railway. He mistakes the brown ceramic insulators on the crossbars of the poles for sparrows at rest in the early morning hours. Inventions and innovations in the delivery and use of electrical power in the third-quarter of the nineteenth century led to its widespread demand by businesses and increasingly by the general public. One of the visible signs of the new power source was a profusion of utility poles and electrical wires in downtown Manhattan in the 1880s.

In the 1870s the use of generators had vastly reduced the cost of electric power, and in 1876 Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone. In 1879, Thomas Edison founded the Edison Electric Light Company to sell his incandescent bulb as a replacement for gas lighting in businesses and homes. In the early 1880s, the city government commissioned the Brush Lighting Company to install electric street lights, beginning with Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and the areas of Union and Madison Squares. By 1886, 1500 street lamps were operating in the city. Electrical companies also began supplying factories, train stations, markets, hotels, theaters, stores, and other businesses with electrical power.

The new night-time illumination was essential for expanding the number and variety of nighttime entertainment offerings, thereby creating "the city that never sleeps." It also meant, however, that New Yorkers could not only play longer, but could work longer hours in the office or factory. When the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886, its torch shone brightly by electric power (so brightly, in fact, that it had to be turned down). Meanwhile, an Edison Company vice president started an instant tradition when he lit his Christmas tree with colored, electric light bulbs.

The lighting companies, Bell Telephone, Western Union, and the Gold and Stock Ticker Company, in addition to police departments, fire departments, and private security companies with their alarm systems, all ran their electric wires on poles or rooftops across the Manhattan skyline, refusing to share space. Besides producing clutter overhead, some of the poles snapped under the pressure, with the live wires falling to the streets below. In 1884, the New York state legislature ordered the electricity suppliers to bury their wires underground, like Edison had done, but the companies ignored the law.

When the blizzard of 1888 hit shortly after this cartoon appeared, numerous wires were downed by the heavy ice and snow. The newly elected mayor, Hugh J. Grant, led a posse around the city, decommissioning the utility poles until Jay Gould, president of Western Union, secured a court injunction to stop them. It took a ghastly public death a year and a half later to provoke the electric companies to act. In October 1889, in the midst of the business district, a Western Union lineman was electrocuted, his body dangling in mid-air for almost an hour as blue flames shot from his mouth. That appalling sight roused the mayor to issue an order the next day that all unsafe wires were to be cut down. Thereafter, companies began switching from overhead to underground electric cables.

Robert C. Kennedy

April 19, 2024

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