Chicago’s skyline at night is the very essence of human ambition. Skyscrapers of glass and steel, limestone and granite push towards the heavens, aglow in a spectrum of electric light. It is a sight that is simultaneously aggressive and peaceful; overwhelming to the senses, yet calming to the soul. To behold the spectacle is to be awed. Chicago is the original modern marvel and the envy of the world. The names behind the city’s skyscrapers are iconic, propelled through the ages on the wave of their mythology. From Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham and others who re-built the city from the ashes of the great fire, to the modernist Mies van der Rohe, and presently innovators like Jeannie Gang, Chicago’s architects names read like a congregation of saints. They are visionaries whose talents have ultimately shaped the way we live, both indoors and out.
Yet the man that brought electric light to the skyline—and with light, shadow, depth and mood—remains largely obscured by time, his ultimate achievement perhaps masked by his personal downfall.

Samuel Insull in 1920
Samuel Insull in 1920 – Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

In fact, Samuel Insull, founder of Commonwealth Edison, almost single-handedly brought electric power to Chicago early in the 20th century. A few short decades later, architecture and electricity would converge on the city in unprecedented fashion, spawning a renaissance. For much of the 1920s, breathtaking skyscrapers were to be built by the dozen, and Insull’s customers for power would surge into the millions. Chicago emerged fully, shedding its image as “mud city” and stepping into the future with abandon.

Samuel Insull was born in London, England in 1859. Smart, ambitious and highly disciplined by his Congregationalist parents, by early adulthood he had established himself as a highly-regarded upstart to some of the most prestigious institutions in the City of London. In 1879, as the age of 22, Insull landed a job as a stenographer with an American businessman, Colonel George E. Gourand, the London-based director of the New York Mercantile Trust Company. Ostensibly a banking job, Insull quickly realized that Gourand’s primary activity was acting as the European representative of an American futurist, and the man who would be forever and inexorably linked to the magic of electric power, Thomas Alva Edison. Suddenly, realizing his role as a member of the Edison enterprise—with all its promise and breathtaking technology—Insull’s ambition grew exponentially and his rise in the organization kept apace. Two years after starting work with Gourand, Edward Johnson, Edison’s chief engineer invited Insull to move across the Atlantic to take a job working for Edison directly, filling in as an urgently needed replacement for Edison’s personal secretary who had just resigned. Fate, a rapidly changing world, and Insull’s soon-to-be trademark predisposition toward risk-taking had converged in a way that would have far-reaching consequences on an Illinois city still digging its way out of a catastrophic fire.

Common folklore often depicts Thomas Edison as the inventor of the light bulb. In reality, his invention was not quite as simple as a single consumer product. Far from it. Electric power, as envisioned by Edison, was an industry as vast as it was complicated, and ultimate success would come slowly and with many difficulties. Electricity was not a mere generational improvement upon the technology of the day, it was an entirely new and untested enterprise; one that required, among other undertakings, inventing every component of the complex technology, creating an industry to manufacture each component, engineering the infrastructure that would install and deliver the technology, and, finally, selling the technology. In short, electrical power produced and sold on a mass scale was almost certainly a larger enterprise than the computer revolution that would come a century later.

For Edison’s part, he soon realized that in Samuel Insull he had hired much more than a personal secretary—a job that initially had Insull performing such mundane personal services as fetching Edison’s umbrella, buying his clothes and waking him from naps. The young Englishman proved to be a match for Edison in every respect; able to equal his boss in workload, orderliness, as well as his in tenacity for negotiation. Above all else, Insull was a loyal protégé when it mattered most. In the critical decade for Edison’s business of the 1880s—a period that saw, among other accomplishments, the construction of the first central power plant in the United States, the Pearl Street Station,—Insull was there to oversee all of it. It was a frenzied and optimistic decade, and one that would fully prepare Insull for his next station in life.

In the year 1892, Chicago was the dominant metropolis in the Midwest, the regional epicenter of exchange and innovation led by titans of industry like Ogden, Field, Pullman and McCormick. Ever the Second City on the continent to New York, however, Chicago lacked both the electricity its Eastern rival possessed and a master to oversee such an industry. Samuel Insull’s moment had arrived, and he accepted it, somewhat reluctantly. Though not fond of Chicago from previous visits (he found the city filthy and full of rats) , upon Edison’s urging, Insull moved to Chicago on July 1, 1892, accepting a three-year contract as president of the Chicago Edison Company. Upon his arrival, the most pressing issue for the city was the oncoming Columbian Exposition, the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, which itself promised to be the greatest display of electric lighting the world had ever seen. For Insull, however, the job he envisioned for himself was much larger in scope. He sought nothing less than to create an electric monopoly in Chicago. His motive was more egalitarian than capitalist as he publicly called for electricity to be available to “even the smallest consumer” , whereas others sought to make it a luxury item only. Whatever his motives, the market potential was enormous. In 1892, Chicago had more than one million inhabitants and less than 5,000 users of electricity. In this environment, Insull began growing—both organically and by takeover of competitors—an empire that would become known as Commonwealth Edison. Needless to say, he stayed in Chicago well past his three-year contract.

As Insull’s company and personal fortune grew, so too did his social standing. A member of the Chicago elite, Insull became know for his European tastes, as well as for his personal acts of charity, most of which were notably performed outside the establishment. Likewise, Insull was also a proponent of the fine arts, particularly the opera. A fan since his childhood in London, when as a boy he would sit in the upper gallery far from the “bejeweled ladies in the finest boxes” , Insull aspired to make the opera—like his electricity—available to everyone in the city. In 1922, he became guarantor of the Manhattan Opera Company, which had relocated to Chicago after failing in New York. In this role, Insull kept strict control over the company budget, and also set out to democratize the opera, a goal that included luring patrons from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and limiting the number of productions performed in French. (This latter move caused Chicago’s most celebrated opera star, Mary Garden, to quit, feeling Insull was vulgarizing the art form). Friction with the upper crust over these decisions would prove to be relatively minor compared to Insull’s next move. To the chagrin of many of the city’s social class, Insull began work on his own opera house—The Civic Opera Building—which was to be built within an office building on the ground level, using investor money, and containing not a single prominent box. This project, which would ultimately cost $4 million dollars, once-and-for-all pitted Insull against Chicago’s elite. In addition to being divisive (dubbed “Insull’s Throne” by its detractors), the magnificent structure was also near perfection in design, providing impeccable views, acoustics and stage design; and lives to this day as the best of Chicago architecture of the 1920s. The building also marked an end to the Chicago renaissance, the roaring 20’s and the fortune of Samuel Insull. Ten days before the opening performance in Insull’s theater on November 4, 1929, the stock market crash had ushered in the Great Depression.

The Civic Opera Building
The Civic Opera Building

At its peak in the late 1920’s, Samuel Insull’s empire was immense. Commonwealth Edison alone was worth $400 million (about $5.6 billion today), and combined with gas entities like People’s Gas and Public Service of Northern Illinois, the Insull companies served more than 4 million customers, producing nearly 15% of all the electricity and gas in the United States, an amount more than any other nation on earth at the time. Ultimately, his holding company collapsed under the weight of the Great Depression, wiping out the life savings of half a million shareholders. His lifetime of business deals were now under scrutiny from the Federal Government, and Insull fled the country. He was later arrested and extradited back to the United States by Turkey in 1934 to face federal prosecution on mail fraud and antitrust charges, and was ultimately found not guilty on all counts.

Samuel Insull left Chicago as a visitor for the last time in May of 1938. Two months later, on the morning of July 16, Insull entered a Paris subway, and while waiting for a train he had a heart attack and died. He had 84 cents in his pocket. This humble end to Samuel Insull’s life—below ground, virtually penniless—belies the glory that he brought to Chicago. He did nothing short of taking the most beautiful skyline in the world and make it glow in magnificent light.

McDonald, Forrest. Insull. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1962. Print.

Written by Bill, Docent for Chicagoline Cruises