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Edison, an experiment and the fire that destroyed MU's Academic Hall

Michael Devaney, a former MU engineering professor, explains how an electrical innovation may have led to the 1892 blaze.

Multimedia and text by Catie Lau

Michael Devaney, a former MU engineering professor, has tales about the innovations that might have resulted in the burning of Academic Hall on Jan. 9, 1892.

Devaney said MU’s College of Engineering gained prestige when it obtained the Edison dynamo — an electrical generator obtained by then-university President Samuel Spahr Laws because of his association with inventor Thomas Edison.

It’s believed the dynamo, now housed in the College of Engineering, may be the generator that was used to experiment with electric lighting in Academic Hall.

Devaney’s understanding of the history is that engineering students were experimenting with the “rated load” of the dynamo — the maximum number of lamps the generator could handle safely — and that they were attempting to power 200 lights in Academic Hall.

In the course of the experiment, a fire broke out between the first and second floors of Academic Hall. The fire was difficult to fight but also was slow-moving. All students and staff in the building, as well as the contents of two museums housed there, were evacuated safely. As Devaney tells the story, it wasn’t until the fire hit the ROTC supply of cannon powder that things took a turn for the worse.

Devaney said although the circumstances were far from ideal, the Edison dynamo played a critical role in the creation of the Electrical Engineering Department at MU.