Stateside
9:04 am
Wed July 30, 2014

Detroit's brightly lit history

Motor City lights
Credit Jason Mrachina / Flickr

Technology is changing rapidly, but the changes that we see today – in phones, cars, and computer software – are not as life-changing as electricity. We went from water wheel power and candles to electric motors and light bulbs in no time at all.

In a recent article in Model D, Amy Elliott Bragg wrote that “by the late 1880s, Detroit was widely considered one of the best-lighted cities in the world.” Now, about 40% of the city’s streetlights are broken and many of the rest are old and dim.

Bragg said Detroit’s first attempt to light the streets began with whale oil lamps, but they fizzled out very quickly, both literally and figuratively. The next attempt was to use gas lights. They worked well and were used until the late 1870s.

Gas lamps were labor intensive; they required workers to come out and light the lamps every night. In addition, the quality of a single lamp was lacking.

“Gas lights were not very bright; they cast kind of a dim glow on the streets, so it required a lot of gas lamps to effectively light the streets,” Bragg said.

Bragg said the first attempt to light Detroit with electric lighting was not with the streetlights we know today. The Brush Electric Light Company won a contract from the city to install lighting towers that resemble phone towers that we see today. The towers were about 120 feet tall and topped with a ring of arc lights that would cast a glow across an entire block or intersection.

“They were known as moonlight because the light that they cast was so bright that it looked like the moon rising over your entire neighborhood,” Bragg said.

However, people complained that the lights were too noisy, cast a glare, and were so bright they couldn't sleep with the light shining through their windows. In suburban areas, the tree cover was so dense, the light wouldn't shine through.

At the time of the lighting towers, there were a number of different electric companies providing power for the streetlights in Detroit. The Edison Illuminating Company in Detroit was the only company providing incandescent lights in homes. Eventually, the competition between suppliers and demand for electric lighting led to the consolidation of the companies, and Detroit Edison was born.

Detroit is now transitioning into another lighting revolution and will be the one of the leading cities to install LED streetlights.

*Listen to the full interview with Amy Elliott Bragg on Stateside at 3:00 pm.