Simanaitis Says

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SO I’M listening to a Nick Carter mystery on SiriusXM “Radio Classics” and he reveals a frame-up by recognizing an alternating-current clock at the scene of the crime, a New York City apartment that’s wired only for direct current.

What? Who would have thought that New York City was AC/DC?? And when was Nick Carter active as a Master Detective anyway? This calls for some Internet sleuthing.

The Carter Dossier. Nicholas Carter began his literary career as a private detective in dime novels in 1886. Nick’s chronicler was John Russell Coryell, 1848-1924, who wrote under a variety of pseudonyms. Coryell’s literary agent, Ormond Gerald Smith, 1860–1933, was the son of one of the founders of Street & Smith publishers.

Nick Carter, Detective, c. 1903. Image from The New Magnet Library Collection at The George Peabody Library, Johns Hopkins University.

Nick’s career was intermittent, with a pulp magazine revival, Nick Carter, Master Detective, which ran from 1933 to 1936. Then there were three movies, Nick Carter, Master Detective, 1939; Phantom Raiders, 1940; and Sky Murder, 1941, with Nick portrayed by Walter Pidgeon.

Nick Carter, Master Detective, 1939 movie starring Walter Pidgeon and Rita Johnson.

The Mutual Broadcasting System ran a radio version from 1943 to 1955. Nick was portrayed by Lon Clark, whose career included many radio gigs as well as a Broadway role when he replaced Jason Robards in the 1956 production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. Nick’s radio assistant Patsy Bowen was originally played by Helen Choate; after 1946, Charlotte Manson played Bowen.

Radio’s Nick Carter (aka Lon Clark) and his assistant Patsy Bowen (Charlotte Manson), 1946–1955.

A typical plot had Nick and Patsy interacting with newspaper reporter Scubby Wilson and the NYPD’s Sgt. Mathison. Though not emphasized, the setting was more or less contemporary; i.e., the hard-boiled post-war era.

New York City’s Electricity. The Pearl Street Station, established in 1882 by the Edison Electric Illuminating Company, was the first electric utility in the U.S. It provided direct-current power to 59 customers in its immediate vicinity in lower Manhattan.

The Pearl Street Generating Station, 257 Pearl Street, New York City. Image from Engineering and Technology History Wiki.

Thomas Edison had a preference for direct current (DC). By contrast, Nikola Tesla’s Niagara Falls electric utility, financed by George Westinghouse and established in 1895, produced alternating current (AC). The resulting AC/DC competition was unpleasant to an extreme: There’s an horrific 1903 Edison Manufacturing movie company filming of an elephant electrocuted with AC.

Eventually, Tesla and Westinghouse’s AC won out. But not without political, economic, technical, and purely lethargic struggles. For example, the NYC subway system’s third-rail supply remains DC. The last of Consolidated Edison’s DC power lines were replaced in 2007.

As for New Yorkers in older buildings, Jay Garmon writes, “In many cases, those DC customers still have DC lighting and power inside their homes and shops, but Con Ed converts the AC power line to DC with an on-premise rectifier.”

Observes Garmon, “Thus, while the last New York DC power line was cut in 2007, DC power is alive and well in the Big Apple.”

In fact, then, Nick Carter, Master Detective, had it right foiling that frame-up, regardless of era. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018

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