Case study: Artificial Light Shaping Cities

In today’s world it is easy to take it for granted that we can turn lights on just by flipping a switch, or that we can walk outside at any time of the night without having to stumble down pitch black streets. In cities, no matter how late it is, there is always entertainment and restaurants and shops open. As natural as the perfectly illuminated cities now feel, it wasn’t always the case. In 1878 during the Paris World’s Fair around 64 “Yablochkov candles”, arc lamps that Pavel Nikolayevich Yablochkov invented three years earlier, were installed on the Avenue de l’Opéra, Plade du Théâtre Francais and around the Place de l’Opéra in to lit up the city of Paris. Arc lamps were ideal for illuminating streets and outdoor spaces because of their bright and intense light. The event in Paris was so successful that it started a series of important corner stones in the history of turning the lights on in cities and bringing electric light to the people. Soon after the Paris World’s Fair arc lights were installed on many streets also in the USA and Europe.[1]

Only a year after the event in Paris, on New Year’s Eve of 1879 Thomas Edison illuminated Menlo Park in New Jersey with his brand new incandescent light bulbs which he had invented only months before. It was the first time the world saw a street lit by incandescent bulbs and the event was witnessed by over 3000 people[2]. This new development was achieved with the help of Edison’s power system design.

In the same year, in December 1879 electric street lights arrived also to Broadway, between 14th and 26th streets, and to Maddison Square where arc lamps were placed on tower that was 160 feet high, (see Image 1). ”A visitor from London, William Preece, described the effect as that of pale moonlight”[3]. Soon these early lights grew in number in the central areas of the city where there were plenty of shopping and entertainment opportunities.

1000 Lights, 1879 to 1859, page 20B
Image 1: Electric arc lighting in Madison Square, New York, drawn by Charles Graham, Harper’s Weekly, 14 January 1882. (1000 Lights. Vol.1 1879-1959, 2005, p. 20).

Edison realized that electric lighting could not become widespread without a proper electric power distribution system, so in 1880 Edison founded the Edison Illumination Company and patented his electricity distribution system. It was put into use when the company in 1882 established the first investor-owned electric utility on Pearl Street Station in New York and in September of the same year turned on their power distribution system providing electricity for lower Manhattan. In 1882 Edison also established the first electrical supply system for domestic use in New York by which he made it possible for electric light to become economically viable. Earlier in 1882 Edison had also started the first steam-generating power station in Holborn in London which powered street lamps and some private dwellings near the station.[4]

In cities street lighting helped reduced crime and increase the overall safety. Before the days of street lights, ”those fearful of arrest could move safely under cover of darkness”[5] but increasing amount of public lighting took that veil away and helped the police forces to act more efficiently. The Metropolitan police was first born in 1829 when gas lamps became a common form of street lighting. Still not everyone was completely happy with the new increase in surveillance. ”To a generation accustomed to soft … candlelight, the electric bulb could seem very glaring indeed”[6], and a common complaint was that the electric lights took away all privacy and intimacy in general.

During the next few decades, electric lights were installed everywhere in cities: on the streets, in buildings, and even on cars. Up until now driving a car at night had depended on oil and gas lamps, but in 1908 the first complete electric system for a car was introduced by the Pockley Automobile Electric Lighting Syndicate of Birmingham. The system included headlights, sidelights and taillights which worked off an 8-volt accumulator.[7] This added even more light and vibrancy to the electrically developing cities and together with street lights made driving amongst swarms of people safer, (see Image 2). Transportation Research Record 1485 made in 1995 shows how street lights reduced fatal night-time accidents by 65 percent and injury accidents at night time by 30 percent.[8]

Victoria and Albert Museum, Lighting, page 53
Image 2: Piccadilly Circus. (Lighting, 1982, p. 53)

In a couple of decades the city of New York was transformed into a sea of light and it became famous for its nocturnal glow. In 1924 filmmaker Fritz Lang visited the USA and was impressed by the city. ”The view of New York by night is a beacon of beauty strong enough to be the centrepiece of a film … There are flashes of red and blue and gleaming white, screaming green … higher above there are advertisements surpassing the stars with their light”[9].

In 1910 Georges Claude, a French chemical engineer, introduced neon-lights to the world. He invented the neon tube as he was trying to create a better light bulb. Claude was disappointed in his new invention as a source of light because its efficiency was too low for general lighting. However, Jacques Fonseque, an advertisement agent, got a thought that they could be bent into glowing letters. Because of ”their extreme adaptability, high luminosity, and brilliant colours”[10] they were perfect for advertising purposes. Two years later, in 1912 the first neon sign was put up to attract people to Montmartre hairdressing salon and the first neon advertisement was installed to promote Cinzano. By the 1980s ”neon glowed in 150 hues, and casinos in Las Vegas throbbed beneath signs containing 8 miles of tubing each”[11], (see Image 3). Neon lights and billboards revolutionized the world of advertising.

Inventions That Changed The World-2
Image 3: Las Vegas. (Inventions That Changed the World, p. 15)

In addition to the visible changes, artificial lighting in cities changed work habits. Artificial light in work places allowed people to work at any time of the day when light was no longer tied to dim candles or natural light. Oil and gas lamps had already contributed to this change but with electric light bulbs the changes were quicker and more notable than ever before. It created the practice of shift work and increased worker efficiency, which then lead to greater productivity. “An entire nocturnal sector of clubs, bars, restaurants”[12], and even 24h supermarkets, was born, which encouraged people to move into cities from rural areas looking for work.

Today there are few things in cities that don’t utilize electric light: the underground needs light, there are screens and illuminated signs everywhere, and even smartphones have their own torches. Artificial lighting has not only shaped the appearance of cities and created the picture of the bright and vibrant hubs, it has also been a powerful tool in shaping the economic and social life in cities. Cities would not exist in their current form without it.




[2] Fiell, Charlotte and Peter (Eds.), 1000 lights. Vol.1 1879-1959, (London, Taschen, 2005), p.28




[6] Wilhide, Elizabeth, The Light, (New York, Watson-Guptill, 2000), p. 6-8

[7] Walker, Richard, The Eventful 20th Century: Inventions that Changed the World, (London, Reader’s Digest, 1996), p. 94

[8] Elvik, Rune, Meta-Analysis of Evaluations of Public Lighting as Accident Countermeasure, Transportation Research Record 1485, (Washington, D.C, TRB, National Research Council, 1995), p. 122

[9] Lees-Maffei, Grace (Ed.), Iconic designs: 50 stories about 50 things, (London; New York : Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2014), p. 73

[10] Alqvist, Ebbe, History of Industrial Gases, (New York, Springer Science & Business Media, 2003), p. 127

[11] Walker, Richard, The Eventful 20th Century: Inventions that Changed the World, (London, Reader’s Digest, 1996), p.14







Alqvist, Ebbe, History of Industrial Gases, (New York, Springer Science & Business Media, 2003)

Elvik, Rune, Meta-Analysis of Evaluations of Public Lighting as Accident Countermeasure, Transportation Research Record 1485, (Washington, D.C, TRB, National Research Council, 1995)

Fiell, Charlotte and Peter (Eds.), 1000 Lights. Vol.1 1879-1959, (London, Taschen, 2005)

Laing, Alastair, Lighting, (London, H.M.S.O., 1982)

Lees-Maffei, Grace (Ed.), Iconic designs: 50 stories about 50 things, (London; New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2014)

Walker, Richard, The Eventful 20th Century: Inventions that Changed the World, (London, Reader’s Digest, 1996)

Wilhide, Elizabeth, The Light, (New York, Watson-Guptill, 2000)



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