'First They Tried to Make Moons': The Fascinating History of Electric Streetlights

When electricity was still in its infancy, municipal leaders turned to "moonlight towers" to provide mass illumination for their cities. Megan Garber explores the "brief and literally shining moment" in the history of electric streetlights.

"In the early years of electricity -- a time when steady illumination was new and expensive and unwieldy -- Americans knew one thing clearly: They wanted light, and lots of it, and as quickly as possible, please." Although grids of individual gas lamps provided a model for lighting urban areas, establishing a similar system of electric lamps provided safety and financial obstacles.  

"City leaders, racing to bring their towns into the future and encouraged by electric companies seeking the same destination, tried to find better ways, cheaper ways, quicker ways to illuminate the American landscape," notes Garber. "And in their haste to vanquish nature by erasing the line between day and night, they ended up looking to nature as a guide. They looked up, seeking a model in the largest and most reliable source of nocturnal light they knew: the moon."

"And so, for a brief and literally shining moment early in the days of human-harnessed electricity, the future of municipal lighting was glowing orbs suspended high above cities -- towers, resembling oil derricks, capped with 4 to 6 arc lamps with a candlepower of 2,000 to 6,000 each. These manmade moons made the ultimate promise to the people below them: that they would never again be in the dark."

Full Story: Tower of Light: When Electricity Was New, People Used It to Mimic the Moon


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