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Light of the world

from the archives of The News-Sentinel

If you're a baseball fan, you owe a tip of the cap to an early Fort Wayne industry with the unlikely name of the Jenney Electric Co. In June 1883 - about two years after the company was formed - Jenney Electric attached 17 electric arc lamps to the outfield fences of a Fort Wayne baseball field. Night baseball was born, and the game was apparently a big hit with Fort Wayne fans. The contest attracted an overflow crowd.

The rest of Jenney's brief history is not quite as colorful, but it is interesting nevertheless. James A. Jenney came to town in 1881 to manufacture an arc lamp and small electric dynamo he had invented. He set up shop in a cramped brick building at Wells and Superior street, but by 1886 his company had grown enough to move to a new site on Broadway near the tracks of the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago railroad.

Just two weeks after Jenney arrived in Fort Wayne, he attracted 2,000 people to a public display of his new arc lights. It was the first time the dim glare of electric lamps was seen in the Summit City. Jenney lamps were soon used commercially; the first being installed in the Home Billiard Parlor. Jenney's products were beginning to get rave reviews throughout the country.

In 1884 the company lighted the New Orleans World's Fair. A year later, Jenney lamps were the first ever to light the Statue of Liberty. An 1887 advertisement duly noted Jenney products had received top honors at the 1883 Great Southern Exposition in Louisville. The Jenney system, according to the advertisement, ``has no equal for simplicity, durability and strength of light.''

Despite the company's glowing reputation, however, it was in financial trouble by 1888. In that year, it was purchased by the Thomson-Houston Co. and renamed the Fort Wayne Electric Light Co. In December 1890, James J. Wood came to Fort Wayne to serve as the company's chief electrician. Wood had earlier invented a sparkfree dynamo and arc lamp, and after the company again reorganized in 1894 it marketed its products under the ``Wood Systems'' trademark. (Wood, by the way, invented the stationary and revolving fans in 1902.)

In January 1899, the Fort Wayne Electric Corp. (as it was then called) was officially absorbed by the General Electric Co., which itself had been born in 1892 through a merger of Thomson-Houston and Edison General Electric. By 1916, Fort Wayne's electric works had become officially known as the General Electric Co., which still occupies some of the original Jenney buildings at its Broadway plant.

So, just like the Dudlo Manufacturing Co., Jenney Electric was a large, early Fort Wayne industry later consumed by another company still active in Fort Wayne today. Dudlo facilities are now occupied by Essex Wire. An interesting final note: Fort Wayne's first electric streetcar was developed in 1891 by Jenney chief engineer Marmaduke Slattery. Slattery's trolley was considered too expensive and unreliable, though, and the transit system returned to horses - for a year, at least. The city's streetcar system was finally electrified by Fort Wayne Electric in July 1892 at a cost of $100,000.

--Dec. 19, 1982