Snow As An Agent Of Change

by Don Friedman on February 13, 2017

Not last week’s storm, although it was fun while it lasted. The most famous snowstorm in New York City history took place in March 1888. The storm paralyzed the entire northeast but it had one singular effect: it marked the end of the romance of overhead wires.

The storm hit an interesting moment in the history of technology. The first commercial electric plant in the city, Edison’s Pearl Street Station, had been in operation for six years, using underground conduit to distribute power. Its competitors, including the Brush Electric Lighting Company, the East River Lighting Company, and the United States Illuminating Company, all had overhead wires. Western Union had overhead wires, as did several proprietary stock-signal companies, and several competing telephone companies. In other words, neither electric power nor communications had yet reached their circa-1900 monopolies, and almost all of the competitors used overhead wires.

The storm took down a lot of the wires. In 1884, the city had mandated that wires be put underground, but the companies had all delayed. In 1888, they were forced to comply.

The lesson was learned and Manhattan, most of the Bronx, and most of Brooklyn were freed from overhead wires. Then as time passed, the lesson was forgotten, and we still have overhead wires for power and communications in parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx, and significant swathes of Queens and Staten Island.

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