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Street Lighting

Updated: May 15, 2023

Late 19th-century photograph by Uriah Hunt, showing a man and boy on F Street in Washington, D.C., with a new electric hooded arc streetlight in the background. From the Library of Congress: cph 3b07404 //

Excerpted from The Chronicle, Volume III, No. 17, October 1948

By Bertram K. Little

The 18th century brought great advances in street lighting both abroad and for the first time in this country. By 1702 the streets of Copenhagen were widely lighted by lanterns, very much like those in Holland. The latter city refused to have flambeaux because of fear of fire; servants carried dark lan­terns for their masters. During this century many cities on the Continent and in England were added to the number v,hose streets were lighted at public charge. The big progressive step, which came early in the century, is the replacing of lanterns with street lamps having glass globes and reflectors, using oil lamps instead of candles and being regularly cleaned. In France in 1703 a M. Fabre proposed specially de­signed lamps with reflectors and chimneys. From a picture it looks as if he had used crude magnify­ing lenses, but these are not mentioned in the de­scription. By 1741 Paris had one man in charge of every ten lanterns and every detail of their care and maintenance was carefully regulated. Three years later, Chateau-blanc invented a reflector lantern which cast no shadows below it, but it was somewhat costly, and had the disadvantages of grov1ing dull because of the smoke, and of going out from con­gealed oil in cold weather. To offset the latter fault, Lierville invented a very thin metal stem which he called a heater, and which conducted heat from the flame down into the oil reservoir.

About 1765, M. Patte developed a street light at­tached to a building, raised and lowered the length of an iron rod by means of a little weight; the lamp in it tipped automatically to use up the last drop of oil. It burned oil made from beech-nuts which M. Patte claimed would burn as well as olive oil at about one-third the cost. He arranged it so that one wick would produce three lights -one natural and two reflections which were thrown to left and right for a distance of 72 feet. In an official report dated 1770, M. de Sartine describes a Paris street lamp as fol­lows: "Hexagonal form, frame of forged iron, about 14 inches high for lanterns ; a horizontal silver plated copper top to reflect the light, surmounted by a domed top. The lamp had Bohemian glass sides, and contained a reservoir lamp with 1, 2, 3 or 4 spouts, backed by reflectors. In 1777 the road from Paris to Versailles was lighted its entire length, vari­ously estimated at from 9 to 14 miles, at a cost of 15,000 francs per year. In 1788 a superior and less costly process was discovered for the purifaction of the field-cabbage (colza) oil for use in street lamps. One more significant development came in 1789 when the street lights were furnished with iron in­stead of rope cords, because it makes us realize that the cry "to the lanterns" heard during the French Revolution meant that the unfortunate aristocrat was going to be hanged by the lamp cord.

The 18th century in England saw a somewhat parallel development. About 1720 the Court of Com­mon Council ordered that all housekeepers whose houses fronted on any street, lane or public highway, should "on every dark night, hang out one or more lights, to continue burning from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. under penalty of one shilling." In 1729 a company contracted to light London's streets, householders having the option of hanging out their own lights or paying the company to do it. In 1736 the City Cor­poration obtained parliamentary powers to publicly light its streets with glass lamps, which were to be kept burning from sunset to sunrise throughout the year, and nearly 5,000 were erected. Despite this provision, link boys were in request to accompany those who could afford them, to and from social functions. Links were made of rope imbued with wax, resin or tar, forming a rigid torch. A survival of such a link was discovered in use on a railroad in Spain as late as 1892. Houses in the city of Bath and the older parts of central London show relics of 18th century lighting in the form of link extinguish­ers and brackets for holding oil lamps, the latter usu­ally over the front gate. These lamps were either in the form of the more or less square street lantern or else hemispherical bowls with flat lids after the style of railway carriage lamps of the late 19th century.

"A Peep at the Gas-lights in Pall Mall", an 1809 Thomas Rowlandson caricature. From Wikimedia Commons:

The history of street lighting in this country fol­lowed the same pattern as in Europe – first private and then publicly supported lighting on a small scale. In Boston there was no public system of street light­ing prior to 1774. Whatever street lighting there was, was supported by private citizens, and this was only in front of their own warehouses or dwellings. Through the influence of John Hancock, the town purchased 400 lanterns in 1772. The Massachusetts Gazette for March 3, 1774 says: "Last evening 200 lamps fixed in the streets and lanes of the town ( i.e. Boston) were lighted. They will be of great utility to the metropolis."

Benjamin Franklin took an interest in the street lighting of Philadelphia, which he later described in part as follows: "Just before I went to England in 1757, I brought a bill for paving the city streets into the Assembly ... it was passed after I was gone with an additional provision for lighting as well as paving the streets .... The late Mr. John Clifton, by plac­ing a lamp at his door, first impressed the people with the idea of enlightening all the city. I have only some merit to claim respecting the form of our lamps, as differing from the globe lamps we were first supply'd with from London. These we found inconvenient in these respects : they admitted no air below ; the smoke therefore, did not readily go out above, but circu­lated in the globe, lodg'd on its inside, and soon obstructed the light, giving besides the daily trouble of wiping them clean, and an accidental stroke would demolish one. I suggested the composing them of four flat panes, with a long funnel above to draw up the smoke, crevises admitting air below to facilitate the ascent; by this means, they continu'd bright till morning, and an accidental stroke would generally break but a single pane."

There were a few minor developments in the first quarter of the 19th century along the lines of in­creasing the effect of street lamps by use of mirror prisms. In 1809 M. Bordier de Versoix brought out a street light using silver-plated copper reflectors, with which ( it is said) he lighted the village of Beau­caire, so that one could read the figures on a watch dial, and in 1812 two of his countrymen developed the Maestricht Lantern, which had a wick that could be cut to the length of time one wished it to burn and needed no attention or adjustment. In 1821 M. Vivien de Bordeaux applied the Argand principle to street lamps.

It is the invention of illuminating gas in 1792 and the application of it to street lighting, and the development of electric lighting, that gave real signifi­cance to the 19th century lighting. The first street to be lit by gas was Pall Mall in London, in the year 1807; Westminster Bridge was so lit in 1813, and the following year the whole Parish of Westminster set an example by substituting gas lamps for oil through­out their area. The adoption of gas for street light­ing in London was followed by a rapid spread of the method. The first city in this country to adopt it was Baltimore in 1817, but there is a definite record that a Newport, Rhode Island, experimenter demon­strated a few gas lights as early as 1806. Boston had gas lights by 1822 and New York in 1823. The City of Paris on the first of January, 1819, introduced its first gas lighting with 4 burners in the Place du Carrousal, and twelve more in the rue de Rivoli.

The first gas burners were "rat-tail " burners, con­sisting of a metal tube closed at one end, which was perforated with a single hole. By 1808 the "cock­spur" type of burner, in which the sealed tube end was pierced with three small holes, and the "cocks­comb," in which the holes were more numerous, were evolved. The former gave a light of about one candle-power for every cubic foot of gas burned per hour. In 1816 came the bats-wing burner, and four years later the "fishtail" or first form of union jet – in which two jets were united to form a single flat flame. Experiments and advances were made in burners until the development of incandescent gas lighting in London in 1895, and the high pressure gas lighting with inverted mantles - cotton fabric im­pregnated with rare earths.

A real electric arc light was produced as early as 1802 by Sir Humphrey Davy, but electric street lighting systems in this country did not begin until the invention of dynamos and a little later of self­-regulating arc lamps. Twelve units of these were in­stalled in the Public Square in Cleveland in 1879. For many years only the 2,000 candle-power arc lamp was available for street lighting. The carbon filament incandescent lamp, the use of metalized carbon and tantalum-wire filaments, had little effect on street lighting, but in 1907 the invention of the tungsten-filament lamp presented real competition for the arc, not only in efficiency, but in economies made possible by the variety of sizes in such lamps. The gas-filled Mazda lamp is the last – but probably not the final development in incandescent lamps since they seem likely to be superceded by the new fluo­rescent lamps.


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