Samuel Insull: Dynamic Business Leader

"Do you remember Samuel Insull?" asks the inside dust jacket of Forrest McDonald's biography Insull. Today not many people can recall Insull or his amazing career. Below is a thumbnail sketch of his life with a listing of other resources for additional information.

Samuel Insull-A Brief Overview

Insull migrated to the United States from England as a young man in 1881, linking up with Thomas Edison and eventually co-founding the company that would become General Electric. In 1892 Insull moved to Chicago where he began to assemble his empire of utility and transportation companies.

His Chicago area holdings eventually included Commonwealth Edison, People's Gas, the Northern Indiana Public Service Company, and many more utilities. Insull led many innovations including mass production of electricity which made electricity cheap and widely available.

A natural outgrowth of electric utility companies was their ownership or acquisition of electric railroads such as interurbans and streetcar systems which were large electricity consumers. Insull acquired and rehabilitated during the 1910s and 1920s the major Chicago area interurbans (North Shore Line, South Shore Line, and the Chicago, Aurora, and Elgin) and the rapid transit lines which today are part of the CTA.

Stone marker donated by Samuel Insull on grounds of Thomas Edison summer home in Ft. Meyers. 1994 Photo.

Without Insull's immediate capital improvements it is unlikely that these interurbans would have survived the Great Depression. Insull's generous civic spirit and love for the Chicago area also seemed to motivate this desire to acquire and improve these electric lines as much as bottom line profit possibilities.

The Great Depression eventually brought down the utilities and transportation empire of Insull due to what became an overly leveraged financial position of his main holding company. Insull was tried and acquitted in each of three separate securities fraud trials in the mid-1930s. In retrospect Insull was probably set up as a scapegoat to partly blame for the financial woes of the country. Broken financially by the exhausting court trials and the Great Depression, he retired to France. Insull died on July 16, 1938, literally penniless, of a heart attack in a Paris subway station.

Postscript

As reported in the Autumn 1997 issue of First & Fastest magazine (published quarterly by the Shore Line Interurban Historical Society), the last of the Samuel Insulls died on May 17, 1997, with the passing of Samuel Insull III, the grandson of Samuel Insull. Samuel Insull II passed away in 1983. The youngest Insull, unlike his father and grandfather, did not work in the utilities and transportation empire assembled by the elder Insull.

Additional Insull Resources

Books and Articles

"The Most Powerful Man in Chicago Held the Power Literally" Chicago Tribune, July 14, 2013.

The Merchant of Power: Sam Insull, Thomas Edison, and the creation of the Modern Metropolis by John Wasik. Palgrave McMillan Publisher, 2006.

Insull by Forrest McDonald. University of Chicago Press, 1962. The definitive biography of Samuel Insull.

North Shore Line: America's Fastest Interurban by William D. Middleton. Golden West Books, 1964. Good summary of Insull's relationship to the electric interurbans, solid background on Insull.

The Memoirs of Samuel Insull: An Autobiography, edited by Larry Plachno. Transportation Trails, 1992. Insull's actual autobiography, originally prepared to help in his legal defense.

The Electric City: Energy and the Growth of the Chicago Area, 1880-1930, by Harold L. Platt. The University of Chicago Press, 1991. Solid, readable history of Insull and the social changes from electrification.

Museums and Collections

The Insull archives are maintained at Loyola University in Chicago.

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