1879: The Electrifying Breakthrough

Ac Hybl, guest writer

Pppphhhttt! I blew into the tube. The molten glass bulged, so I blew again, harder. As a mucker, my job required perpetual physical labor and patience, as if being a scientist wasn’t hard enough.

            “What’cha got there, Wesley?” John pointed to the bulb I clutched, sulking into the main lab. “Why so careful?”

            “Another failure,” Jake supported him. Despite all the talk Edison gave me about being the ‘brightest’ and ‘cleverest’ mucker, Jake and John never ceased to harass me. Ignoring them, I set up my trial next to Andrew, who usually didn’t bother me. It had been over a year since Mr. Edison announced that he had found the key to a successful electric lamp. Now we toiled to fulfill his premature promises.

            “So have you asked Ann out?” Andrew inquired while applying power to his contraption.

            “No,” I watched it glow brightly, slowly losing intensity, “but I will tonight.”

            “At the pond, again?”

            “Yeah,” I confirmed, gazing at the bulb as it flickered out, “I hope.”


            I slid around the corner of Union Pond and peered ahead. On the days she did come, I could usually see Ann on 5th avenue, strutting toward the frozen pond. In fact, that’s how I first met her. Her gait caught my attention, and her auburn hair seemed to wave to me behind her back. She gently lifted her quarter up to pay for entry, but they wouldn’t let her in. Apparently she didn’t have a Union Skating Pass, so I stuck up for her and said she was with me. We had skated a lot together since then, but not today. She was probably just using me to get cheaper passage.

            That didn’t make complete sense either, though. She gave me a Bible last skating season, so she must care somewhat. Maybe she thought the ice wasn’t thick enough yet; after all, the pond froze much earlier this year, I optimized as I started back to the boarding house. I should read the book she gave me, it might remind me of her.


            “October 19th,” Edison grumbled as he strode through the laboratory’s back door, “That’s what he said, isn’t it Andrew?”

            “Yes, Sir.”

            “Then they’re two days late, two precious days,” he continued with three parcels under his arm. They weren’t too tattered, or odorous, but certainly packaged unusually. The wrap was greener, not the old burgundy that most of the shops in the area used. “We need to prove ourselves by the end of the year.”

            “John, here’s more bamboo filaments,” he handed him the first package. “I want you to try the same system except this time with carbonized material. Jake, I had the finest flax delivered from tropical India, I think it will have the longest results yet. The baywood is for you,” Thomas motioned to Andrew on his way out, rubbing something between his fingers.

            “What should I use?” I made Edison halt.

            “Oh right, Wesley, do you have your own bulbs blown?”

            “Yeah, the one I tried yesterday blew up though, so I made this one a half-inch shorter.”

            He held it up to a window, “Very well, here, try these,” he handed me all he had in his dirty hand. “Carbonized cotton, we haven’t tried that yet, good luck. We will find a way that works, with enough trial and error.”

            The small ball of filaments looked like plain, charred cotton. It was practically scraps compared to Jack’s “tropical flax.” I angrily wedged it on the wires and proceeded with another experiment, probably my 184th, or such. “If I’m not even valuable enough to get decent material to experiment with, no wonder Ann doesn’t care for me either,” I mumbled, jealously glancing at Jack and John’s table. I worked at getting the position of the fiber just right as Andrew lit up his electrical light.

            “You about ready there, Lewis?” John smirked, “I’ll bet mine will last longest today.”

            “Doesn’t matter, you’re nowhere near Edison’s lamp.” Jake lit his up, “It lasted nearly an hour.” John and I applied the current at the same time and waited. I shuffled over to the glass bin and pulled it under my bulb, preparing to be the first to clean up.

            Within a minute, Jake’s flax stopped glowing, “I don’t see why mine’s dead first, I had the tropical flax, right?” he pulled the bin from me and began disassembling.

            “Our filaments are carbonized,” Andrew mumbled.

            It took only seven minutes for all the electric lights to burn out, except for mine. Even Edison peered in from his room to inquire of our results. I kept waiting for the cotton to go dark so I could clean up, all the while pondering whether I’d ever get on the ice that evening—if Ann was waiting for me.

            Finally, I surpassed Edison’s 57-minute record. The “renowned scientists” around me, gaping at my success, measured lumens.

            “So, I was right after all,” Edison leaned closer. “‘A carbon filament coiled and connected to platina contact wires’ produces light far superior to California’s arc lights!”(Early)

            “I can’t believe it, but yours is successful, Wesley,” John acknowledged as he followed Jake, who had stormed off to the dormitory, having observed my electric light steadily glow for two hours. I gave up waiting and followed the others after Edison had expressed how “thrilled” he was with me.

            The next morning, I observed the light while sipping milk from a redesigned glass bottle.

            “Wesley Lewis Allen!” Edison yelled “It’s still shining!” It had been 12 hours since I first passed the current through the carbonized cotton.

            Although it went out less than two hours later, word got out that Edison had developed the electric lamp. Despite my apathy, I realized that I had not just improved my rank with the other muckers, but possibly paved the way for decades of innovation to come.


            “Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves,” I read aloud one night. It had been two months since my astonishing breakthrough, and Edison’s lab had produced lamps that lasted nearly two days. I had helped develop them, and had grown my relationship with Ann while skating. However, since November, I had developed a prevailing jealousy toward Edison and the fact that the electric lamp was patented on his name alone. I knew that it was part of our initial agreement, but I hadn’t felt at peace with that fact till I read that passage from the Bible Ann gave me.

            Suddenly, instead of pondering the injustice of how Edison took full credit for what I had helped develop, I was prepared to let my selfishness go, and aid Thomas in completing the lights for next Wednesday’s public lighting.

             Although he had announced the invention of an electric lamp over a year ago, only those who worked for Edison and came into his labs were able to see electric lamp prototypes—all that was about to change. Before the end of the year, he planned to construct enough lights to light up Menlo Park for public admiration. He needed all the muckers’ help, of course. In the past months, I had spent many days crafting, testing and storing away these incandescent lights. Even Francis, who usually stuck to theoretical calculations, helped us. The funds from John Morgan and the Vanderbilts had sufficed till now, and I prayed they would till we had enough lights for this whole park. If they did, Edison would be able to perfect the system for electric railways recently developed in Berlin.

            Since word got out that I had helped craft the novel invention, Ann and I had skated many times. In fact, I had worked up the courage to ask if she wanted to spend Christmas Day together. However, after making plans, she had to opt out because her aunt got sick that Tuesday.

            Silently slumping onto my bed, I prayed I would see her soon.


            I arrived at the lighting nearly skipping. I had spent all day testing the strings of electric lamps that Edison, Andrew, Jake and I labored weeks over. “The Wizard of Menlo Park,” (Thomas) as they now called Edison, had put multiple lights on the same wires and, with our help, created 40 lights that would shine for over a day. That night, they were strung up all around Menlo Park: on trees and several on the left side of the boarding house.    

            With the “Pirates of Penzance” premiering, our wizard didn’t expect to have much of an audience, but he was mistaken. Hundreds of animated observers were already congregating in the dim twilight, shielding their faces from the numbing breeze.

            I sought out Edison, whom I found at the electric switches, in case he needed any last-minute adjustments made. Together we had planned the light patterns so that, by intertwining two separate circuits, every other light could be turned on and off, 20 at a time.

            I meandered under the string of lamps alone, as if the crowd was afraid to stand directly under the new invention. Among the cracking and snapping of the earth beneath me, a distinct footstep sounded behind me. I froze, wishing the last rays of sun would return.

            Tiptoeing, I neared the crowd. “Thank you all for coming out and spending your New Year’s Eve under the best invention of the year or perhaps this decade,” Edison announced as I paced toward him.

            The unmistakable rubbing of a jacket emanated from behind me. My heart began to beat faster. Who was following me?

            Almost running, I glanced back. Suddenly, out of the dark, a hand found mine, “Wait! Wesley, it’s me!” Ann’s voice almost gave me a heart attack.

            “I almost thought—well . . . I’m glad to see you again. How’s yo—?”

            “Kklllckzzz!” a loud click resounded before I could finish. Instantly, light flooded the park, illuminating bright colors and minute details, as if on a cloudy day. Ann looked prettier than ever under the soft, yellow glow.

            Excitement spread over Ann’s face, “My, it is fascinating!”

             The crowd “Ooed” and “Ahhhed” as I gawked at Ann’s amazement—illuminated by the flashing lights. “This is awesome! How much of this did you help with?”

            “Well, last October, I made the first truly successful and practical electric lamp. Since then, Edison, Andrew, John, Francis and I have been working on getting them to last even longer. He even made a system for—”

            “So what Andrew said was true . . . I met him here, he helped me find you. Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you, but you have long legs,” her reply made me chuckle. “I had to run.”

            “It’s okay.”

            “Will you be rich or something now that you’ve discovered this?”

            “Not quite,” I chortled, “Edison gets all the credit. I was using his method, after all.”

            “Oh, doesn’t that bother you?”

            “No, not anymore at least. That Bible you gave me, it reminded me that selfishness is dangerous and despised.”

            “You’re right, at least you know how it all works, right? I’m sure you’ll have to make more of these in the next few months, huh?”

            “You could assume that.”

            The dazzling lights captivated our gazes for another hour, till tiny droplets of rain dampened the crowd’s enthusiasm.

            “It looks like we should go inside.”

            “Wait,” I fumbled, “Do you think this really is the best invention of the decade?”

            “It’s really fascinating, but I don’t know about best. It certainly is the last of the decade,” Ann joked. She always made me laugh.

            “W-Would you consider ending this year with me? We can go skating. In fact, I’ll take you on the new indoor rink.”

            “Alright, but just to celebrate your electrifying breakthrough,” she took my hand as we walked deeper into New York. From a distance a chime sounded, and together we counted to twelve as a new decade, and, unbeknownst to us, a new era, dawned.

Works Cited

Burgess, Anika. “Ice Skating in New York Has Always Been Magical.” Atlas Obscura. 20 Dec.                   2017, Web. February 7, 2018.

“Early Light Bulbs.” Early Light Bulbs, 14 Sept. 2015, ethw.org/Early_Light_Bulbs. Web.                  February 8, 2018.

“Edison and His Era.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, www.nps.gov/                       n.d. Web. February 7, 2018.

“Edison’s Lightbulb.” The Franklin Institute, 19 May 2017, www.fi.edu/history-resources/                 edisons-lightbulb. Web. February 7, 2018.

“First Public Demonstration of Edison’s Light Bulb.” www.americaslibrary.gov/jb/gilded/                         jb_gilded_edison_3.html. n.d. Web. February 7, 2018.

History.com, Staff. “Edison Demonstrates Incandescent Light.” History.com, A&E Television                 Networks, 1 Jan. 2010, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/edison-demonstrates-                          incandescent-light. Web. February 8, 2018.

Philippians 2 – CEB Bible” Bible Study Tools, Christian Resources Development Corporation,             2011, www.biblestudytools.com/ Web. February 7, 2018.

“The History of Ice Skating in New York City Parks.” History of Ice Skating History in NYC                  Parks: NYC Parks, www.nycgovparks.org/about/history/ice-skating. n.d. Web. February 7,                    2018.

“Thomas Edison and Menlo Park.” Thomas Edison Center, www.menloparkmuseum.org/history/            thomas-edison-and-menlo-park/. n.d. Web. February 3, 2018.


“1879 In the United States.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Jan. 2018,                                       en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/1879_in_the_United_States. Web. February 7, 2018.

Powell, John. The 19th Century 1801-1900. vol. 3, Salem Press, 2007. Print..