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Samuel Insull: Electric Magnate

 

 

 

Samuel Insull: Electric Magnate

Charles Norton to Samuel Insull, 1907
Born near London, Samuel Insull learned stenography and landed a job in 1881 as the personal secretary of Thomas Edison. Learning the electric lighting business from the ground up, Insull helped establish the manufacturing arm of what would become the General Electric Company in Schenectady, New York. In 1892, Insull became the president of the Chicago Edison Company, one of several electric companies in the city. Over the following decade, he mastered the unique economics of the electric utility business and emerged as a national leader of the industry. Proclaiming that “low rates may mean good business,” Insull developed a business strategy that encouraged the use of electricity among all types of energy consumers. This approach made him an innovator in the use of technologies, financial instruments, rate structures, and promotional campaigns to create a mass market for electric light and power. Moreover, he mounted a successful effort to establish a monopoly of central station service in Chicago for the renamed Commonwealth Edison Company.

Insull also became a pioneer in building larger, regional networks of power and related, holding company devices to maintain control of his sprawling utility empire. During World War I, he was appointed chairman of the Illinois Council of Defense. In the 1920s, Insull was regarded as one of the nation's leading businessmen, a role which made him a perfect scapegoat for the Great Depression. Arrested and tried for securities fraud, he was acquitted in 1934 but remained a broken man until his death.