First, the tried to make moons
March 31, 2013 6:00 PM   Subscribe

Early in the 19th century, gas lamps first illuminated city streets, not long after the potential for gas lighting was publicly demonstrated. Less than a century later, electricity was seen as the future of lighting public spaces, thanks in part to technology that was demonstrated around the time of gas lighting. Arc lamps, the predecessor to filament bulbs, were much too bright for lighting homes and businesses, but a single arc lamp could light a whole town.

One plan was to replace the network of gas lights with new electric lights, but the new wiring was expensive, and dangerous. The sheer brilliance of a single arc light allowed towns to be lit with a few arc lamps. But these lights cast daylight in a direct line from the towers, and anything in the way would cast a shadow. Where this was an issue in major cities, young towns on flat terrain were well supported by these beacons in the night. In 1881, San Jose was one of the first US towns to get an electric light tower.

Despite improvements to this energy-efficient technology, incandescent bulbs allowed for better distribution of light, and most of the moonlight towers have been removed intentionally, or destroyed by acts of nature. In the US, Austin still has working moonlight towers, which were purchased from Detroit, where there were once 122 such towers. Here's a list of towers in Austin on Wikipedia, and a map of the former and remaining towers.

If you want to make your own arc lights, it's relatively easy. Make Magazine has a 5 minute YouTube tutorial and accompanying write-up, and there's another set of instructions on Instructables.
posted by filthy light thief (30 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite

 
Hat tip to Jenah, whose comment about cities before lighting sent me off to find out more about early lighting methods for cities.
posted by filthy light thief at 6:05 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


One of my first jobs was as a movie projectionist, using carbon arc lamps to provide the illumination for the films. Awesome stuff. Great post, only now I gotta see one of those towers live!
posted by emmet at 6:16 PM on March 31, 2013


Early use of new technologies often draws on unexpected analogies. Arc lights were supposed to replace the moon, not the sun. The first idea from the president of the Royal Society upon hearing of hot air balloons was to suggest that they could be used to lighten carriages, thus reducing the number of horses needed to pull them!
posted by blahblahblah at 6:20 PM on March 31, 2013


San Jose has a half-size replica of its original (115 feet) in History Park.

It is amazing that Austin has its originals, and that several are still operating!
posted by eye of newt at 6:28 PM on March 31, 2013


I lived near one of them in Austin, on the edge of Hyde Park. It was reasonably bright and fun to look at, although the mechanism to get the repair person to the bulbs looked scary as hell (essentially, a bucket on a winch)....
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:32 PM on March 31, 2013


It's astounding how little I know about 100 years ago.
posted by 2bucksplus at 6:45 PM on March 31, 2013 [4 favorites]


Fuckin' Austin. Are those purely decorative or do they actually light up entire neighborhoods?
posted by phaedon at 6:54 PM on March 31, 2013


Fascinating post. I find it interesting how the widespread adoption of street lighting at night changed societal values and the behavior of people and wild animals so drastically, but most people have no idea how this transition came about. I'm somewhat interested in the subject and even I don't have a strong recollection of reading about the towers of light, so thanks! I didn't expect these to still be in existence anywhere.
posted by quiet earth at 7:05 PM on March 31, 2013


Are those purely decorative or do they actually light up entire neighborhoods?

Atmospheric arcs
Rain upon the hipster masse
Elon Musk is speaking
posted by pashdown at 7:05 PM on March 31, 2013 [4 favorites]


I remember reading a Popular Mechanics article (or some other science-y magazine) from about that time period, and air conditioning had just been invented. The first ideas about air conditioning were to cool down the sidewalks of New York City.

Reading about the arc lights being electric moons for a whole city makes me wonder what modern cities would be like if we concentrated more on the collective rather than the individual.
posted by xingcat at 7:06 PM on March 31, 2013


Note that the remaining ones in Austin now have mercury vapour lamps which are nowhere near as bright as the original arc lamps.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:06 PM on March 31, 2013


Party at the moontower!
posted by chillmost at 7:16 PM on March 31, 2013 [4 favorites]


There is one tower in Toronto that looks like it might have originally been an arc light tower, though I would have to check old aerials to see if it is as old as I think that it might be. As in the case with Austin and other survivors, there are more modern lights on it.
posted by waterunderground at 7:16 PM on March 31, 2013


Reading about the arc lights being electric moons for a whole city makes me wonder what modern cities would be like if we concentrated more on the collective rather than the individual.

I'm more or less socialist, but I'm glad we don't light our streets with Eye of Sauron towers that blot out the stars on a citywide basis.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 7:18 PM on March 31, 2013 [7 favorites]


> There is one tower in Toronto that looks like it might have originally been an arc light tower

There are a lot of hydro telemetry towers around the city that look pretty old, but not as old as moonlight towers.
posted by scruss at 7:40 PM on March 31, 2013


They worked well enough in Hyde Park Austin to light a way, but not leave a shadow. Dusk/dawn effect @ night.
posted by buzzman at 7:43 PM on March 31, 2013


The modern high tech version of the moon tower arc light might be the sulfur lamp, a quartz globe containing sulfur powder bombarded by microwaves, producing 100 lumens per watt at very high wattages, say 5,000 - 10,000 watts or more, and almost all visible light - that is, it makes very little infrared (wasteful) or ultraviolet (wasteful and dangerous). One of the original problems was geting lower wattage versions to work, but they eventually got them down to 1,000 watts.

It has some drawbacks - the light is kind of greenish, which can be altered with dopants, and microwave leakage could interfere with cells phones and such, but they're working on it. With proper reflector and baffle designs, light pollution could be minimized.

Who knows, the moon tower may yet return.
posted by tommyD at 7:54 PM on March 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


There are a lot of hydro telemetry towers around the city that look pretty old, but not as old as moonlight towers.

Well, it is definitely not hydro-related, and is in a place in continued usage long enough to have had an arc light tower. I'm not saying that it is certain to be one, but I am pretty certain that it is a tower that has only ever been used for lighting. It's not a 260-foot titan, but the general setup is consistent with a moon tower. I will have to go out there some night and take a look at the structure up close to get a better feel for its age.
posted by waterunderground at 8:18 PM on March 31, 2013


This is really cool. We take so much of our surroundings for granted. It's fascinating to think that something as simple as street lighting could have turned out so differently.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 8:26 PM on March 31, 2013


How am I the first to say eponysterical?

But seriously this looks quite excellent and will give me something to look forward to reading tomorrow.
posted by Twain Device at 8:37 PM on March 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


Oh man, that near 41st and Speedway tower from 1890 is still there... what a change other wise...
posted by buzzman at 8:59 PM on March 31, 2013


It's interesting that people at that time thought of moonlight as sufficient to aspire to. I live in a badly lit part of town and even on a full-moon night I curse the insufficiency of the street lighting when I turn into my street. We are so used now to having artificial lighting that is much brighter than what nature provides.

I know when I am camping, or on fieldwork in a region without much artificial light at night, it's amazing how bright a full moon looks, so I get why that would have seemed like a good model in the 19th century.
posted by lollusc at 9:10 PM on March 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


I live 3 short blocks from the moonlight tower on 41st and Speedway. It gives a very diffuse light since it is above tree level and there are a crap ton of giant trees in the neighborhood.

I used to live in an apt on 22nd St right next to one of the towers and whenever it was hit by lightning (often) it would scare the pants off me.

The city also decorates the moon tower at Zilker Park as a giant Christmas tree every year.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 11:03 PM on March 31, 2013


So cool. I think I need to go to Austin to see a moon tower now.
posted by Jess the Mess at 4:05 AM on April 1, 2013


Electric lighting before Edison.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:51 AM on April 1, 2013


Your light shines in my eyes.
I crave the comfort of darkness.
Darkness is my friend.

And it took a goddam chicken to reveal this simple truth.

Amazing.
posted by mule98J at 9:55 AM on April 1, 2013


A 10 KW sulfur microwave lamp (basically the brightest and most efficient light source currently available) could light up a 1-square-mile area with 0.38 lux. A lot of that would be lost by any conceivable diffuser, but also these lights are pretty small and you could put several on a tower. Moonlight is around 0.1 lux. So we do have the technology such that a town could have only one light that is brighter than the moon.
posted by miyabo at 3:37 PM on April 1, 2013


So we do have the technology such that a town could have only one light that is brighter than the moon.

Sure, if there's nothing in the town that casts a shadow. Mostly you'd just have a lot of well-lit rooftops.
posted by Sys Rq at 3:59 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Great post! A fascinating book about a similar topic came out a few years ago: Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light.
posted by apricot at 5:20 PM on April 1, 2013


Street lights make people blind to everything not under the street light. As you walk towards it, you see everything lit underneath, but then you can't see in the relative darkness in which you walk. It is better walking away from it, until the next one causes the same problem.

The walkway by my building has lights that are below my face level. They don't blind, they light the walk. This is useful.

Without streetlights, your eyes will adjust to allow as much seeing as possible. It's surprising how much that is, without streetlights to blind you.
posted by Goofyy at 1:50 AM on April 2, 2013


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