PD Smith

Bright Lights, Big City

Like much of our often invisible urban infrastructure, modern city dwellers take street lighting for granted. At least, they do until they walk down an unlit and unfamiliar street. While I was researching City, I came across the rather sad story of one of the pioneers of gas lighting, a man who was truly ahead of his time. There wasn’t room to include it in the book, so I thought I’d share it with you now.

It was the French engineer Philippe Lebon (1767-1804) who had the ingenious – though as it turned out premature – idea of using the gas produced from burning wood for heating and lighting cities. He was utterly convinced that he had discovered a new power source for what he called ‘thermolamps or stoves that heat cheaply’. [1] But like many inventors, he found it difficult to convince others that his ideas could work. The French government rejected his proposal to illuminate Paris with gas lights.

So, in 1801, Lebon rented a house in the heart of Paris and, using his invention, spectacularly illuminated its rooms and even the grotto in the garden. Despite this shining example, the French press poured scorn on his idea and manufacturers remained sceptical. Poor Lebon was ruined and his idea faded with the turning out of the last gas-lamp in his show-house. Lebon had spent his entire family fortune on the idea and died in 1804, a bitter man.

But the very next year, William Murdock – who had also invented an ingenious pneumatic urban message system – began installing coal-gas lighting in mills in Manchester and Halifax. Murdock had started experimenting with coal-gas a few years earlier, after hearing of Lebon’s gas-lit house. The age of gas lighting had finally dawned, but sadly without its pioneer, Lebon, ever seeing its light.

The first gas lamps were installed in London in 1812 by Frederick Albert Winsor’s Light and Coke Company. By the 1820s, it was a common sight in the city’s streets. Baltimore was the first American city to use gas lighting in its streets, from 1816. By 1822, even Paris had begun to install gas lighting. Within thirty years, London – the capital of the industrial world – had an astonishing 30,000 gas-lit street lamps. Hong Kong was one of the first cities in East Asia to have gas street lighting from 1862. The elegant gas street lamps in Duddell Street, Hong Kong, were produced in 1922 and are still operational, or at least they were when I saw them last year.

Thanks to gas lights, cities – the ultimate man-made environment – no longer had to follow the natural rhythms of the sun. In the heyday of gas, the flickering lights of the city became a powerful signifier of modernity. Packed with the fruits of mass production, the new urban department stores turned themselves into glittering, brightly lit cathedrals of consumerism. In 1878, Eduardo de Amicis, arrived in Paris from Italy. He was utterly astounded by the bright lights of this city of 1.8 million people, describing it as a modern "Tower of Babel". His description of this dazzling city is wonderfully vivid and gives a powerful impression of what it must have been like:

"The Boulevards are blazing. Half closing the eyes it seems as if one saw on the right and left two rows of flaming furnaces. The shops cast floods of brilliant light half across the street, and encircle the crowd in a golden dust. The kiosks, which extend in two interminable rows, lighted from within, with their many coloured panes, resembling enormous Chinese lanterns placed on the ground, or the little transparent theatres of the marionettes, give to the street the fantastic and childlike aspect of an Oriental fete. The numberless reflections of the glasses, the thousand luminous points shining through the branches of the trees, the inscriptions in gas gleaming on the theatre fronts, the rapid motion of the innumerable carriage lights, that seem like myriads of fireflies set in motion by the wind, the purple lamps of the omnibuses, the great flaming halls opening into the street, the shops which resemble caves of incandescent gold and silver, the hundred thousand illuminated windows, the trees that seem to be lighted, all these theatrical splendours, half-concealed by the verdure, which now and then allows one to see the distant illuminations, and presents the spectacle in successive scenes – all this broken light, refracted, variegated, and mobile, falling in showers, gathered in torrents, and scattered in stars and diamonds, produces an impression of which no idea can possibly be given." [2]

Gas lighting undoubtedly transformed cities. But it could also be lethal. An 1881 fire in the Vienna Opera killed 400 people. For this reason, when it was invented, electric lighting was hailed as the safe alternative to gas and the energy of the future. The first experiments with electric lights in London began as early as 1858. In America, the inventor and engineer Charles Brush first illuminated the Public Square in Cleveland, Ohio, using an electric arc lamp in 1876. But like Lebon, Bush found that the reception of his new technology was not always favourable. Directing the beam of his light from a second-story window onto a parade of soldiers, he recalled that "after a while a big policeman came up and said, 'Put out that damn light!' and we put it out." Nevertheless, the experiment became permanent the following year, on 29 April. It was, said Brush proudly, "a day to remember". [3]

In 1863, science fiction author Jules Verne looked forward in time to 1960, when Paris would be illuminated by the "incomparable radiance" of one hundred thousand electric streetlamps. [4] Back in reality, the first arc lights were installed in a Parisian department store in 1877. The next year, electric street lighting was trialled in the city. Large-scale electric street lighting was demonstrated for the first time at the international Exposition of 1889. At this and the 1900 Exposition (both lit by electricity), Paris portrayed itself to the world as the city of the new century – the City of Light.

The electrification of cities also played a significant role in the early life of one of the most famous scientists of the twentieth century. Thanks to pioneers such as Werner von Siemens (who in 1867 had invented a revolutionary dynamo), Germany quickly became a world leader in electrical research. By 1890, there were 15,000 electrical workers in Germany and within eight years this figure had risen to 54,417.

Albert Einstein’s father and uncle ran an electrotechnical company in Munich. "It was a time," recalled Einstein’s sister, "when all the world was beginning to install electric lighting." [5] In 1882, the Einstein firm had exhibited dynamos, arc and incandescent lights, and even a telephone system at the Munich International Electrical Exhibition. Later they had the honour of supplying electric lighting for Munich’s Oktoberfest—the first time the annual beer-drinking celebrations had been lit by electricity. Ironically, Albert Einstein himself was never keen on beer, later saying that it "makes a man stupid and lazy".[6]

The Einstein family firm had its biggest success in 1888, when it won the contract to supply power and lighting to the Munich suburb of Schwabing, where author Thomas Mann would soon live. It was not until six years later that the city of Munich took the decision to introduce electric street lighting. Although the new lights were undoubtedly brighter, they cost four times as much as gas lamps. But installing electric street lighting was now about far more than practicalities – it had become a matter of civic pride. Everyone was convinced that electricity would be the urban energy of the new century: the city of the future would be wired.

Unfortunately, it was not the Einstein family firm that won the Munich contract. His father and uncle had staked everything – even remortgaging their home – on being awarded the contract. When this didn’t happen, their firm went bust and the family moved to northern Italy. But Albert never forgot this early experience of the electrotechnical revolution. Indeed, it was his familiarity with electricity and magnetism that allowed him to transform our understanding of physics.

In 1893, the World’s Columbian Exposition at Chicago became a showcase for the new urban uses of electricity. Its centrepiece was the 82-foot-high Edison Tower of Light, built by the General Electric company and illuminated with no less than 10,000 bulbs. One of the exposition’s most popular attractions, it was America’s "earliest example of a fully electrified tower". [7] Known popularly as the White City, the Exposition must have been a magical sight lit up at night. For awe-struck visitors it was a thrilling experience of the technological sublime and a glimpse of the urban wonders of tomorrow: the city upon a hill would shine with the light of electricity.

Indeed, it is electricity that makes possible that most iconic sight of the twentieth century – the urban skyline at night. When a German film director arrived at Manhattan on the Deutschland liner in October 1924, en route to Hollywood, he was kept on board by immigration officials overnight, the ship moored to a Hudson River pier. As he waited, Fritz Lang spent hours staring at New York’s skyline, mesmerised by its soaring illuminated architecture. Later, he recalled seeing "a street lit as if in full daylight by neon lights and topping them oversized luminous advertisements moving, turning, flashing on and off, spiralling". [8] This skyline provided the inspiration for perhaps the most famous urban movie of all time: Metropolis.

At about this time, the sight of the Manhattan skyline at dusk from the Brooklyn Bridge sparked a moment of profound insight and self-understanding in the young Lewis Mumford, who would later write an influential urban history. In his autobiography, he recalled this epiphany:

"Three-quarters of the way across the Bridge I saw the skyscrapers in the deepening darkness become slowly honeycombed with lights until, before I reached the Manhattan end, these buildings piled up in a dazzling mass against the indigo sky. Here was my city, immense, overpowering, flooded with energy and light… The world, at that moment, opened before me, challenging me, beckoning me, demanding something of me that it would take more than a lifetime to give, but raising all my energies by its own vivid promise to a higher pitch. In that sudden revelation of power and beauty all the confusions of adolescence dropped from me, and I trod the narrow, resilient boards of the footway with a new confidence that came, not from my isolated self alone but from the collective energies I had confronted and risen to." [9]

Today’s megacities have become the largest artificial structures ever built. In the nineteenth century, people were awed and even rather unnerved by the scale of what was then the largest city on the planet – London. Today, the bright lights of the big city fill us with a mix of emotions – awe certainly, but also an unsettling sense of our chutzpah as a species. I have felt this in Kowloon, staring out at night across the harbour to the glittering towers of Hong Kong Island. It is an unforgettable sight. The soaring scale of the towers is historically quite recent, but such glittering skylines also speak to us of something that is as old as the first cities: of opportunity and the promise of a new beginning. It’s a powerful message that leaves few unmoved.


1. Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and Isabelle Stengers, A History of Chemistry, trans. Deborah van Dam (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard UP, 1996), 169.
2. Eduardo de Amicis, Studies of Paris (New York, 1882), 29-30, cited from Mark Girouard, Cities and People: A Social and Architectural History (New Haven: Yale, 1985), 296.
3. Charles F. Brush, ‘Development of Electric Street Lighting’, Journal of the Cleveland Engineering Society, 9 (Sept 1916), 55, cited from Carroll Pursell, The Machine in America: A Social History of Technology (1st 1995; repr. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 2007), 134.
4. Jules Verne, Paris in the Twentieth Century, tr. Richard Howard (New York: Ballantine, 1996), 24.
5. Cited in PD Smith, Einstein (London: Haus, 2003), 5.
6. Ibid., 28.
7. Gail Fenske, The Skyscraper and the City: The Woolworth Building and the Making of Modern New York (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 2008), 218.
8. Lang cited from James Sanders, Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies (London: Bloomsbury, 2002), 106.
9. Lewis Mumford, ‘The Brooklyn Bridge’, in Sketches from Life (1981), cited from Empire City: New York Through the Centuries, ed by Kenneth T. Jackson & David S. Dunbar (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 843-4.
Philippe Lebon.
A daguerreotype of a Parisian gaslight taken in 1855.
Grand birds-eye view of the grounds and buildings of the great Columbian exposition at Chicago, Illinois, 1892-3

All other photos by the author.