Samuel Insull (1859-1938)
Samuel Insull was born in London, England in 1859. He became a secretary and bookkeeper at an auction firm at age 14. In 1870, he became a secretary to one of Thomas Edisonís agents in England. In 1881 he came to the United States as Thomas Edisonís personal secretary. Insull developed had a natural skill for distilling concepts and information into viable business solutions. By 1889 Insull was vice president of Edison General Electric Company in Schenectady, New York. When J. P. Morgan took over Edisonís power companies in 1892, Insull became president of the Chicago Edison Company.
Insull directed Chicago Edison through the Panic of 1893 and went on to develop the large Harrison Street power plant.
Under Insull's management Commonwealth Edison was the primary Chicago supplier of electricity by 1908. It was not uncommon in other part of the world for an electrical supplier to acquire control of some primary electrical users. Insull unified rural electrification and in supplying gas throughout the Chicago area. Eventually, Insull took control of troubled electric train commuter lines.
As early as 1892 there had been thoughts about unifying the "L" operations. Insull worked with many others, including Ira M. Cole and Emil K. Boiset, to find a workable solution. It took years, significant expense, and several interim steps before an integrated system emerged. Insull's determination led to success after success.
Insull's failure was shared by many when the Great Depression hit in 1929. With the collapse of the economy ridership plummeted and losses soared.
In 1932 Insull resigned as chairman and director of the Chicago Rapid Transit Company (CRT). Within day the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company filed a creditorís suit requesting that the CRT be placed in receivership. Insull's other holdings were drained to support the CRT, but the nation's collapse was so severe. As was a common practice at the time Insull did not separated his various businesses activities and he was left in financial ruin.
Insull had some relatively small private resources and retired to Europe, but a scapegoat was needed for the stock market collapse. In 1932 Insull was indicted. Months passed before he was returned to the United States to face the charges. It should be noted that Insull was acquitted on ALL charges before he returned to Europe. He died of a heart attack in a Paris subway on July 16, 1938. He suffered on final indignity. The contents of his wallet were stolen as he died on the subway platform.
Samuel Insull was involved in many entrepreneurial and philanthropic endeavors. A 1922 article in the Suburban Citizen reports one of those endeavors. See Samuel Insull - Local Newspaper Articles.
For more information on Samuel Insull please see the new book, The Merchant of Power (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2006) by John Wasik. It has received very good reviews.
The Insull archives are maintained at Loyola University, Chicago.
Last Modified: 05/01/2006