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Commonwealth Edison Co. - Lehman Brothers Collection

Commonwealth Edison Co.

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A group of Chicago businessmen founded Western Edison Light in 1882. The company was renamed Chicago Edison in 1889.

Samuel Insull took over the presidency of the company in 1892. Insull pioneered the electric power industry. He popularized mass production and selling at the lowest possible cost, developed modern public relations, and devised methods for marketing securities in a way that led to the large public corporations of today. Insull established an advertising department in 1901 and published and distributed a free tabloid, Electric City. Insull also began publishing annual reports fifteen years before they became standard.

A rival company, Commonwealth Electric, was established in Chicago by a group of politicians who hoped to extort $1 million from Insull. The group gave Commonwealth Electric a fifty-year franchise to provide the city's electricity; they were unaware, however, that Insull owned the rights to electric equipment needed to run the company. Chicago Edison bought out Commonwealth for just $50,000, and the two companies merged in 1907 to form Commonwealth Edison ("ComEd"). Insull added ComEd to Middle West Utilities, a large utility holding company over which he retained control.

The company grew rapidly. In 1906 ComEd's customers numbered 50,000, and in 1909 its customers numbered 100,000. In 1912 it completed the largest steam generator that had been built at that time. The company continued to thrive after World War I and added over 75,000 new customers in 1923. The Depression hit ComEd hard; by 1932, utility stocks had plummeted. Insull was also charged with fraud and embezzlement in connection with Middle West Utilities. Around that time, the company extended its control over other fields by controlling companies through direct and indirect stock ownership. ComEd's control over the production, purchase, transmission, distribution, and sale of electricity and gas expanded through its interests in Public Service Company of Northern Illinois, Western United Gas and Electric Company, and Illinois Northern Utilities Company. The company's subsidiaries, Super-Power Company of Illinois and Chicago District Electric Generating Corporation, owned and operated electric generating stations in the area. By 1938 certain subsidiaries provided heating services, by steam or hot water, to approximately 1,000 customers and water service to approximately 7,000 customers. ComEd gained control over a steam railroad through its interest in Chicago & Illinois Midland Railway Company.

World War II stimulated further growth; in 1943 about 40 percent of the company's yearly output was tied to war production. In 1947 the city of Chicago examined ComEd's practices and found that the company was significantly overcharging its customers. The company spent twice as much on advertising as any other utility, and customers bore the brunt of such expenditures. Ultimately, consequences for the company were slim, and the city signed a forty-two-year franchise with ComEd after the investigation. The company remained successful, and in 1951 its assets were over $1 billion.

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