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The Powerhouse

By the early 1900s, Johnson & Johnson’s business was booming. The company expanded its reach, manufacturing consumer products like fumigators (which killed disease-causing insects), dental floss, and disposable diapers in addition to its sterile surgical supplies. As more people learned about the principles of basic hygiene and proper emergency care—sometimes through Johnson & Johnson publications like the 1901 Hand Book of First Aid—they became dedicated consumers of company products. To keep up with demand, the company stretched into new factory spaces to increase production. At the heart of this expansion was the conversion from steam to electric power. The company built its first all-electric Powerhouse in 1907.

The Cotton Mill and new addition in 1907.

Image courtesy: Johnson & Johnson Archives

A view of the Powerhouse under construction. The same year the Powerhouse was built, the country experienced an economic panic. Even amidst the uncertain times, through prudent financial planning, Johnson & Johnson was able to complete the massive construction project to position the company for future manufacturing growth.

Image courtesy: Johnson & Johnson Archives

Johnson & Johnson was one of the largest American producers of sterile medical supplies by the turn of the 20th century. The new addition to the Cotton Mill brought the company to 40 buildings in total, with 500,000 square feet of dedicated manufacturing space. The company’s surgical dressings were made from sterile, absorbent cotton, which required many steps to produce. Raw cotton was brought to its New Brunswick factories, tested for quality and woven into sheets, which were manufactured into products, and then sterilized and packaged for hospitals and retail sale. Previously, the factories had run on steam. An elaborate system of pulleys brought power to the power looms and industrial steam sterilizers that produced uniform, antiseptic products. To power all of these new machines, Johnson & Johnson needed a centralized source of energy.

A Johnson & Johnson steam-powered shaft line in one of its New Brunswick textile factories.

Image courtesy: Johnson & Johnson Archives

Although many of the company’s machines had been converted to electricity before 1907, the new Powerhouse’s 1,600-horsepower Corliss Engines operated at eight times the capacity of the company’s original plant. This ensured that the factories could be supported as manufacturing expanded in the future. The Powerhouse was constructed to the same exacting standards as the company’s sterile factory buildings. Cream-colored, glazed subway tiles and large windows provided lots of light, giving it the appearance of a hospital ward and ensuring that it could be cleaned easily and often.

Electricity first arrived to company factories as early as the 1880s.

Image courtesy: Johnson & Johnson Archives

Johnson & Johnson’s conversion to electricity was part of a larger, national trend of factories upgrading their fuel sources and technologies. After Thomas Edison invented the first commercially-practical light bulb in 1879, electric power became the next technological frontier. Among the first to convert to new the energy source were textile factories, like Johnson & Johnson’s Cotton Mill. This provided a cleaner energy source and led to improved safety for employees. Many early factories ran on coal, which polluted the air, and increased the risk of fire It also made round-the-clock shifts possible. During World War I, as production for sterile surgical supplies skyrocketed, Johnson & Johnson’s factories operated 24 hours a day to meet the demand for wound care.

The engine room in the pre-Powerhouse plant.

Image courtesy: Johnson & Johnson Archives

Today, the Powerhouse still stands—it’s the oldest remaining building on Johnson & Johnson’s New Brunswick campus. Though no longer a source of the New Brunswick campus’ electricity, the Powerhouse is a reminder of the company’s early expansion, focus on the future and dedication to cutting-edge technology. In the years since, it became home to Johnson & Johnson’s archives and museum. It now houses the renovated, state-of-the-art multimedia experience, Our Story at the Powerhouse. 

The completed Powerhouse.

Image courtesy: Johnson & Johnson Archives

General Robert Wood Johnson, son of the company founder, took his first job at the company working at the Powerhouse.

Image courtesy: Johnson & Johnson Archives

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