February 22, 2018

The Energy Transition from Gas to Electricity

American Illuminations: The Energy Transition from Gas to Electricity

After the American Century

In 1900 the city of Cincinnati sent a small group around to ten other cities to study their lighting systems. Cincinnati had an old gas system and wanted to upgrade it. It may seem strange to us today, but it was by no means obvious that they should choose electricity. Gas lighting had improved greatly in the 1890s, and when the Cincinnati committee got to St. Louis they were told that while electricity was popular with the citizens, it was rather expensive and was only used on a few streets. Elsewhere, St. Louis was going to use Welsbach gas mantles. The committee next went to Indianapolis, but its system was not cutting edge and left immediately for Chicago, where they heard that of course the city was converting everything to electricity. But in Milwaukee, they learned that gas was preferred.

And so it went. The choices were also more complex than just gas or electricity, for there were many different kinds of arc lights, some open, others enclosed, some using alternating current and others direct current. The committee also had the problem that they wanted to compare systems side by side, but they were hundreds of miles apart. How could they compare the electrical system in Pittsburgh with the gas system in St. Louis? They might see one city when the moon was shining and another when it was raining. The problem is much like that of a city buying a technical system today, and it is not always clear which system is the optimal choice.  

This is just one of many stories in American Illuminations which looks at how Americans developed the most brightly lighted cities in the world by the end of the nineteenth century. The larger story includes the spectacular displays at world's fairs, the development of "moonlight towers" and electric signs, the illumination of skyscrapers, the invention of the city skyline, the lighting of amusement parks, the city beautiful movement, and the many uses of electric lighting in parades and politics, particularly presidential inaugurations. 

Walter Benjamin once wrote that "overabundance of light produces multiple blindings." Read this book, and see if you agree.