Brain Pickings

The Age of Edison: Radical Invention and the Illuminated World

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A brief history of giving the people what they wanted, or why the lightbulb was a mere cog in the machinery of total illumination.

In 1880, a short segment of Broadway from Madison Square to Union Square was transformed into the “Great White Way” when twenty-three arc lights were switched on at nightfall, burning until sunrise the next day.

The light itself was overwhelming. The New York Times reported:

The great white outlines of the marble stores, the mess of wire overhead, the throng of moving vehicles, were all brought out with an accuracy and exactness that left little to be desired.

Women shielded themselves from the light using umbrellas. One person described the scene in horror:

People looked ghastly — like so many ghosts flitting about.

The harsh brightness of the arc lights required that they be hoisted between 20 and 50 feet in the air, throwing the city into dramatic light and shadow. People appeared gaunt and washed out, and the light exposed every skin imperfection. The experience of the arc lamp was like standing under a watchtower, and the street now had one on every corner. New York had been transformed into a prison, not a playground.

Light had come to the American city. And it was just awful.

In The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America (public library), Ernest Freeberg explains that the invention of electric light was not simply the invention of the light bulb — rather, it was the introduction of an entirely new way of life: the experience of illumination.

A night view of the Paris Exposition of 1900

Image courtesy Brooklyn Museum

Thomas Edison, in fact, wasn’t the first to invent the lightbulb — in one form or another, electric light had been in existence since the turn of the nineteenth century when Sir Humphry Davy — a British scientist who had previously intoxicated himself with nitrous oxide — demonstrated the first arc light to the Royal Society in 1810. The arc light was named for the brilliant white light that appeared when an electrical current jumped the gap between two carbon rods. Davy’s effect was brief but brilliant, and the scientist made no effort to distribute the light on a grand scale.

Sir Humphry Davy experimenting with a voltaic battery

Image courtesy Chemical Heritage Foundation

The arc light was powerful and effective; it became the standard application for inventors who wanted to distribute light to small towns and big cities across the U.S. It could blast away the shadows in Grand Central Station and it could light up an area for miles with a single strobe. San Jose and Austin constructed “moonlight towers,” roughly the size of a modern cell phone tower, to cast a white-hot glow over their city streets and combat crime. For the civic-minded, darkness was the criminal and the arc light was the policeman.

The first arc light tower, constructed in San Jose, California in 1881

Image courtesy Wikimedia

The incandescent light bulb was much more fragile an invention, relying on a glowing filament whose lasting power was unreliable. It was, however, the glow that Edison obsessively sought out. Edison didn’t invent incandescence either, but his goal was to make a bulb that glowed steadily, and that could glow in tandem with others.

Edison the man was an emblem for his entire workshop: hundreds of engineers and patents, a mountain of discarded materials, a thousand promises and false starts, millions of dollars in potential profit and market domination.

Edison and his workshop always invented in full view of the public. He would throw open the doors of his laboratory in Menlo Park, ready to reveal another rung in the ladder of human progress, only to shut himself up again when the newspapers questioned the efficiency of his inventions. The news from Menlo Park, much like the news from Cupertino today — and from Bell Labs in the mid-twentieth century — could affect the stock market on a grand scale.

The gas companies had the most to lose from the invention of a successful Edison lighting grid.

Image courtesy the New York Public Library

In late 1879, Edison opened the doors to his laboratory to introduce the prototype of his incandescent light, capable of burning for up to three hundred hours. The bulb itself was not particularly special — hundreds of bulbs with varying filaments had been invented and discarded over the years. What made Edison’s light different, however, was a quality that couldn’t be measured in dollars: it was beautiful.

According to one newspaper, the lightbulb was “a little globe of sunshine” which produced “a bright, beautiful light, like the mellow glow of an Italian sunset.” It was also the first light that had a single sensory experience. For thousands of years, light had been the product of wood, tallow, gas, or coal — where there was smoke, there was light. A newspaper reported of Edison’s bulb:

There is no flicker… There is nothing between it and darkness. It consumes no air and, of course, does not vitiate any. It has no odor or color.

Cities and towns did not simply crave light — the arc light was the brightest and boldest light a person could experience — they craved the right light. Edison’s incandescent bulb was not the brightest, but it had the glow that the public desired. Edison devised a system of lighting, a string of incandescent bulbs that ran on parallel circuits — ensuring that one outage wouldn’t collapse the system — driven by an enormous dynamo that allowed an even brightness across a vast field. Edison didn’t simply envision a bulb, he envisioned a grid, and he hooked his lighting into the tangle of telegraph wires, phone lines, and police alarms that already ran through the city.

The Edison Electric Tower was a pillar of incandescent light designed to showcase the glow of the Edison bulb. It was a popular feature of the General Electric exhibit at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago

Image courtesy Field Museum

The great shift from darkness into light during the nineteenth century wasn’t due to the invention of the lightbulb, but the invention of illumination and the experience of light on a grand scale. A well-lit room was not a novelty. A well-lit street, a building sprinkled with light, a lighthouse with a brilliant beam — these were the signposts of an illuminated world. Men and women would begin to stay out later into the night. Constant illumination meant a longer workday, for some driven by economic need, while others simply craved it.

The illuminated world transformed the literary sphere, too. With more people outside during the night, there were more stories to cover, more life to unfold. Newspapers began to publish multiple daily editions, both because they could and because the public hungered for it. The factory worker and the newspaper reporter began to intensify their “night work” and the now-familiar 24-hour workday began to take shape.

The Great Search Light and Electric Tower at the Pan American Exposition, held in Buffalo in 1901.

Image courtesy the New York Public Library

The Age of Edison is the story of invention and experience, in which the race to light America was not for the brightest light, but the best, and the smartest. In the end, Edison’s incandescent bulb prevailed — not simply because it was the most beautiful light, but also because it was the savviest.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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