Tri-State Trivia – Did You Know the First Electric Streetlight in America Was Installed in Indiana?
Welcome to another edition of Tri-State Trivia, where I share with you interesting little factoids about our area of the country after I, myself, have discovered them because I think you might find them interesting too. You may remember the thrilling and highly educational, "Tomato Juice Was Invented in Frech Lick," and, well that's it because I've only written about that one and this one. With that said, my plan is to share more of these moving forward, so "Stay Tuned" as some of us radio people like to say.
Today our journey takes us to northern Indiana specifically, Wabash, Indiana. A small town with a population of 10,666 based on the 2010 census, according to Wikipedia, and roughly a one-hour drive southwest of Fort Wayne. It was here, way back in 1880, roughly one year after Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb, the first electric streetlight was installed in America.
The concept of streetlights at that time was nothing new. According to History of Lighting, records show the use of streetlights dates back over 2,500 years to Peking, China where natural gas from volcanic gas leaks was led through bamboo tubing and ignited to light the streets at night. For nearly the next 2,400 years, gas, and in some cases, oil, was the go-to source used by cities and towns across the world as a way for people to make sure their horses and buggies stayed on the road.
In the early 1800s, electricity began to be used as a lighting source through an invention called the arc lamp which ran electricity through carbon rods to create light. Encyclopedia Brittanica breaks it down how they worked in more detail if you're interested. While some European cities used the technology for street lights, most notably Paris, France who is credited with installing the world's first electric streetlight, nearly everyone else continued to use gas because it was most widely available.
Using electricity as a light source got a big boost in 1879 when Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb. However, Edison wasn't the one responsible for bringing the electric streetlight concept to Wabash. It was one of his competitors.
Like Edison, Charles F. Brush was an inventor and industrialist from Ohio who had improved the original design of the arc light and successfully tested it as a streetlight in Cleveland in 1879. According to the book, The Night They Turned the Lights On in Wabash by Peter Tocco, citing a 1910 article from Thad Butler, one of the chief editors with the Wabash Plain Dealer newspaper, when word of the test spread, he and another the other chief editor, T.P. Keator, began discussing the idea of bringing the lights to Wabash permanently with members of the city council. With the council's blessing, the two men traveled to Cleveland to meet with Brush and make an offer; place four lights on the city's courthouse in the center of town and run them for a week. If they worked, the city would pay Brush $1,800 to install them permanently. That amount would equal $46,743 in today's money.
The test run began on March 31st, 1880. According to a few seemingly over-dramatic journalists covering the event at the time, the lights were "exceeded in power only by the sun," and "rendered the square as light as midday." Some even said, "men fell on their knees, groans were uttered at the sight and many were dumb with amazement."
Obviously, the week-long test run was a success, The lights were permanently installed making Wabash, Indiana the first town in America to have electric streetlights.
Thanks for reading. More interesting tidbits about the area we call home to come.
SEE: 11 Unique Attractions You'll Only Find in Indiana