Hundreds gathered on New York City’s Pearl Street one afternoon in September 1882 to watch an entire city block come to life. Inside a building on Pearl Street stood Thomas Edison, the famous inventor known as “The Wizard of Menlo Park” (for his world-renowned laboratory). Edison toggled a switch, and electricity surged from his new Pearl Street generation plant through cables leading to businesses and homes throughout lower Manhattan. On Pearl Street, 400 of Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulbs came to life.

The New Yorkers watching that day could see the future.

For decades, many had tried to develop an electric lamp that could last long enough to be useful. On October 21, 1879, Edison had his “Eureka moment.” Experimenting with carbon filaments, he created a light bulb that burned for a continuous 13.5 hours, far longer than any previous effort and the key event that led to Pearl Street three years later.

Light bulb and drawing of Thomas Edison (AP Images)
A model of a street light using Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulb (AP Images)

It would be another three years before Edison could build the infrastructure needed to light Pearl Street, but people understood right away the importance of his breakthrough. On December 30, 1879, the New York Herald reported,

Menlo Park [was] thronged with visitors coming from all directions to see the `wonderful’ electric light. Nearly every train that stopped brought delegations of sightseers until the depot was overrun and the narrow plank road leading to the laboratory became alive with people.  In the laboratory the throngs practically took possession of everything in their eager curiosity to learn about the great invention.

The future came fast after Edison illuminated Pearl Street. Light bulbs began to replace candles and gas lanterns in houses, bringing steady light without the risk of fire. Factories and shops grew more productive, and safer.

In these energy-conscious times, we all share the benefit of new and more efficient electric lights. Today’s LEDs can run for 25,000 hours and use about one-sixth the energy of modern incandescent bulbs.

Learn more about the history of the light bulb from the U.S. Department of Energy.