Edward Hibberd Johnson
Edward Hibberd Johnson (January 4, 1846 – September 9, 1917) was an inventor and business associate of American inventor Thomas Alva Edison. He was involved in many of Edison's projects, and was a partner in an early organization which evolved into the General Electric Company, one of the largest Fortune 500 companies in the United States. When Johnson was Vice President of the Edison Electric Light Company, a predecessor of Con Edison, he created the first known electrically illuminated Christmas tree at his home in New York City in 1882. Edward H. Johnson became the Father of Electric Christmas Tree Lights. Ironically he died of an electrical accident.
Protégé of William Jackson Palmer
In 1867, a very optimistic, eager 30-year-old retired Union Army general named William Jackson Palmer and his 21-year-old chief assistant Edward Hibberd Johnson headed west from their hometown of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. General Palmer was the construction manager for the Kansas Pacific Railroad, mapping routes through New Mexico and Arizona to the Pacific coast.
The Kansas Pacific Railroad was an enterprise of the Philadelphia interests which controlled the Pennsylvania Railroad (whose president John Edgar Thomson had employed Palmer as his personal secretary before the War). Under General Palmer's direction the Kansas Pacific was extended from Kansas City, Missouri, reaching Denver, Colorado in August 1870.
Hiring young Thomas A. Edison
In 1871 Edward H. Johnson, as the assistant to General William J. Palmer, was sent back East to manage the Automatic Telegraph Company. When Johnson hired 24-year-old Thomas A. Edison, the contracted employee quickly outshone the particular company, and Johnson brought his enormous talents to the attention of the principals of the company. Of Edison, Johnson later wrote:
- "He ate at this desk and slept in a chair. In six weeks he had gone through the books, written a volume of abstracts, and made two thousand experiments ... and produced a solution."
The Philadelphians then backed Edison's evolution into a full-time inventor, established in his "invention factory" in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Johnson became Edison's trusted executive as his inventions and business developed in the 1870s and later.
Recruiting Frank J. Sprague
Johnson apparently had a good eye for young talent. In 1883, he is also credited with recruiting into Edison's organization a naval officer Frank J. Sprague, whom he met at an International electrical exposition. Sprague became a brilliant electrical genius and inventor, and was responsible for major developments in electric railways and electric elevators which were instrumental in the growth of U.S. cities in the later 19th and early 20th centuries.
Partner in the Edison companies
Edward H. Johnson was a partner in the Edison Electric Lamp Company, a partnership formed in early 1881. Other partners were Thomas Edison, Charles Batchelor, and Francis Upton. In May 1881 the company changed its name to the Edison Lamp Company. A year later it moved its factory from Menlo Park to East Newark (Harrison), New Jersey. The partnership became a corporation in 1884. The company merged with several other Edison companies in 1889 to become the Edison General Electric Company. The same year, it acquired the Sprague Electric Railway & Motor Company. On April 15, 1892, it merged with the Thomson-Houston Electric Company, another electrical manufacturer, in the consolidation forming the General Electric Company, which is today one of the largest Fortune 500 companies in the United States.
Heading the forerunner of Con Edison
Edward H. Johnson also became president of Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York. This company was organized on December 17, 1880, to construct generating stations in New York City. Its first central station, located on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan, opened on September 4, 1882. The company was the prototype for other local illuminating companies that were established in the United States during the 1880s, and was a predecessor of Con Edison, the electric utility company which powers New York City today.
First electric Christmas tree lights
The first known electrically illuminated Christmas tree was the creation of Edward H. Johnson. While he was Vice-President of the Edison Electric Light Company, he had Christmas tree bulbs especially made for him. He proudly displayed his Christmas tree — hand-wired with 80 red, white, and blue electric light bulbs the size of walnuts — on December 22, 1882, at his home in New York City. The story was reported in the Detroit Post and Tribune by a reporter named Croffut. Croffut wrote "Last evening I walked over beyond Fifth Avenue and called at the residence of Edward H. Johnson, vice-president of Edison’s electric company". Although Johnson's address at that time is not known, he lived in one of the first areas of New York City wired for electric service. Edward H. Johnson became known as the Father of Electric Christmas Tree Lights.
From that point on, electrically illuminated Christmas trees, indoors and outdoors, grew with mounting enthusiasm in the United States and elsewhere. In 1895, U.S. President Grover Cleveland proudly sponsored the first electrically lit Christmas tree in the White House. It was a huge specimen, featuring more than a hundred multicolored lights. The first commercially produced Christmas tree lamps were manufactured in strings of nine sockets by the Edison General Electric Company of Harrison, New Jersey and advertised in the December 1901 issue of the Ladies' Home Journal. Each socket took a miniature two-candela carbon-filament lamp.