(Fort Wayne Monthly “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” June 2010 No. 67
James Wood – Jenney Inventor
Southwest of the Swinney Homestead in Swinney Park stands a familiar landmark. It’s the Fort Wayne plant of the General Electric Company. Specializing in the research, development, and manufacturer of electric motors and transformers, the General Electric Company’s operations in Fort Wayne are traced to 1881 during the first age of electricity and the beginnings of the Jenney Electric Light Company.
In the late 1870s, James Jenney and Professor John Langley, inventors from Ann Arbor, Michigan, had perfected their own version of an “arc lamp” and “dynamo”, or generator, intended for use in outdoor lighting. Their bitter rival for patents, Charles Brush, also of Ann Arbor, had successfully demonstrated the new technology of electrical outdoor lighting as early as 1877 in Philadelphia. Wabash, Indiana, and Cleveland, Ohio, boasted of having the first municipal lighting in the nation, using a Brush system in 1880.
Jenney had come to Fort Wayne in 1881 to sell his new lamp but had no success. While staying at the Aveline Hotel, he by chance met John Keiss, a shipping clerk in the local dry goods firm of Evans, McDonald and Company. Keiss quickly arranged a meeting between his employer, Ranald T. McDonald, and Jenney.
McDonald, a natural promoter and enthusiastic entrepreneur, was immediately impressed by the potential of Jenney’s light and set up a demonstration in his warehouse. There, before Mayor Charles Zollinger, the City Council, leading businessmen and a multitude of citizens, the “warehouse was made as bright as the sun” when the switches were thrown. According to the newspaper account, there was an audible gasp from the crowd as the people of Fort Wayne first saw light produced by electricity.
Within weeks, the Fort Wayne Electric Light Company was formed. It was popularly known as the Jenney Electric Light Company and its first building was located in the abandoned Olds Wagon Works between Calhoun and Harrison streets on the south side of Superior Street.
The first of these electric lights in Fort Wayne was purchased for the Home Billiard Room in 1881, and by 1882, the city of Fort Wayne also purchased the Jenney Arc Light System, which became the principal street lighting for several decades. In 1884, the Jenney Electric Light Company was contracted to provide all the outdoor lighting for the New Orleans World’s Fair.
The company attracted some of the leading minds of the new electrical age, from Marmaduke Marcellus Slattery, an active inventor of generators and batteries, to James J. Wood, the electrical genius from Brooklyn who had designed the first lighting system for the Statue of Liberty.
The company ran into financial difficulty, however, and in 1888 was sold to the Thompson-Houston Electric Company of Massachusetts. It became the Fort Wayne Electric Light Company under the leadership of James J. Wood in 1890. The new company prospered and came to be known as the Wood Electric Works or, as many locals called it, “The Lights,” because of the constant testing of the arc lamps around the buildings.
In 1898 the business was purchased by the new eastern giant, the General Electric Company, and began to make the transition to electric motor manufacturing, still under the effective leadership of James Wood and another electricity wizard, E. A. Barnes.
During the decades of the 20th century, the Fort Wayne Works of the General Electric Company acquired a reputation for innovation and production quality. Developed in part by the Fort Wayne team led by Clark Orr, the first modern refrigerator was created by G.E. as was the electric garbage disposer and scores of significant electric motor and transformer inventions.
Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; hosts “On the Heritage Trail” which is broadcast Mondays on 89.1 fm WBOI; and “Historia Nostra” heard on Redeemer Radio 106.3 fm. Enjoy his previously published columns on the History Center’s blog “Our Stories” at historycenterfw.blogspot.com.