Wednesday, April 14, 2010

old time high tech

Did you know that from the late 1800's through 1910 towns and cities in the United States and Europe were lit by giant arc lamps that sat on posts sometimes 300 feet tall? Neither did I. I've asked a number of people if they'd ever heard of moonlight towers and nobody knew what I was talking about. Of course, in my case that's often been true so it doesn't bother me anymore.

I was wandering around the nets a couple of days ago and found a web site that probably should be better known called 'Low Tech Magazine'. The first story I read was the one about the moonlight towers that appeared for a while to replace darkness and gas lamps in Victorian times. They were carbon arc lamps that appear to have been much like modern searchlights except they pointed down onto streets and docks instead of up into the sky to notify the public about new supermarket openings. Ooops, that's become a thing of the past now too, hasn't it?

Paris had hundreds of them by 1877, including a dozen on the Eiffel Tower. No wonder it became known as the City of Lights. Still, it was a surprise to learn that by 1907 the US led the world in lighting the outdoor darkness with 700,000 of these things in operation. One can imagine walking along a well lit boulevard only to turn a corner into total darkness to understand why their popularity was intense but short-lived. It was the development of skyscrapers that eventually led to the abandonment of these spectacular light shows - that and the discovery of incandescents by Edison (although it was Tesla who invented AC - another story).

Anyway, the web site is really fascinating for anyone interested either in the brilliance of our forebears or the possibilities for utilizing new versions of old methods for getting things done in a world where we're finally learning the true cost of cheap power. Besides. it's fun. If you don't believe me check out 'Tiles as a substitute for steel: the art of the timbrel vault'. I may have to think about passing on painting until I build my own inspiring studio with a very impressive perch for Crow.

(Only Austin, Texas still has 17 of its original 31 moonlights but uses different power.)


Ben said...

That is a wonderful site. The article from a few months ago about Hoffman kilns really deserves broader attention.

As for the arc lamps, I had read a little about them in a book of DIY science projects--never got around to doing it--but I'm interested in more.

marja-leena said...

Oh, they had light pollution already so long ago!? Interesting technology, and how it changes over time.

susan said...

Ben - I hadn't read about the Hoffman kilns until just now and you're right that they deserve more attention now. Reading that was like listening to GD's stories of how things were done when people had to think things through.

marja-leena - I immediately considered I'd never seen a movie showing a city where they were used but then realized it would be sheer havoc for a director and camera crew.

La Belette Rouge said...

I did know that about the Eiffel Tower but not about Austin. Fascinating! I am going to pass these links onto He-weasel. This is just his cup of tech.

lindsaylobe said...

Hi Susan
It was quite a fascinating era wasn’t it which conjures up a certain grandeur. I feel the same way about old Buildings which seem so often to be far more imposing and pleasurable although a fraction in size to the many modern skyscrapers whose presence is oft but a blight to the eye.

At about 1850 Australia was still receiving transported criminals from England from mainly those found guilty for petty thefts.

The total white population was only 267,000, but nevertheless Melbourne shone under the imposing influence of large Gas Lights.

Best wishes

Randal Graves said...

Gaslit darkness is very Holmesian. I'm not sure I'd be on board with 300 ft tall lamps. ;-)

jams o donnell said...

Wow what a brilliant site Susan. It has been bookmarked for frequent vistits...

susan said...

belette - Neat. I hope he enjoys it.

lindsay - I'd dearly love to live in a place without skyscrapers - particularly the steel and poured cement kind. They turned into an unnatural blight across the face of the earth, didn't they? You know I think the fact we moved to Canada and not Australia was based on a coin toss. Otherwise, we might have been neighbors and that's a pleasant thought.

randal - I always preferred the vision of gas lamps myself.

jams - I'm glad I was able to find it for both our sakes.

Liberality said...

Moon globes? wow, that really does sound neat. Why can't we go low tech if it works?

susan said...

liberality - When I first heard the term I thought they'd be towers you could climb for a closer view.

Seraphine said...

bright light is fun to photograph with. i need to get back into it, because available light ends up looking grainy with my little digital camera.
but living in california, anything brick or concrete scares me because of earthquakes. one time i was in the transamerica pyramid - one of those reinforced-with steel structures - and somebody told me the whole building was on a type of wheels in case of an earthquake. it could move back and forth. somehow, that didn't make me feel any better, because i know i'd get sick if it ever did that.
i'd live under a bright light in a tent in the middle of the street if it wasn't for trucks.

Lisa said...

That is really cool. Thank you for showing that to us.

susan said...

sera - Having been a long time admirer of your photographs I have to say your abilities using low light are wonderful as they are.

I rather like bricks but there aren't too many brick buildings left around here. Poured concrete, steel and glass scare me but not because of earthquakes. Instead it's their essential inorganic, mechanistic nature I find repellent. A tent under starlight would be best of all.

lisa - Glad you enjoyed it.

Spadoman said...

I have never seen one of these and I was not aware that they have ever existed. The first step is the hardest, you know, admitting there is something out there in this world that I don't know a thing about?
There, I said it.
Remember, "If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, you have to baffle them with bullshit", that's my motto.
An illustrator named Eric Sloan wrote a series of books that highlighted old tools and architecture and how they helped in the development of modern day marvels, just like your lighting towers I imagine.
When I travel in remote areas of this country, I often think of how dark it had to be before The Rural Electrification Act in 1936. Pretty dark out there.
Thanks susan, next time down in Austin I'll be looking for these things.


Steve Emery said...

It's amazing to me what we had in our past and have forgotten about. Nearly all traces erased. The weirdest thing about this, to me, is that I didn't now about them from fiction. Street lights feature often enough in books - why not these towers? I guess they were in place for too short a period to get enough mentions. Or maybe when we see references to them we think they mean the street lights we have now...

susan said...

spadoman - Reading about them last week was the first time I'd run across the subject too and I'm always glad of the people who write about things I'd never heard of before. The towns that were lit by these things would have been visible from many miles away.

steve - They were pleasantly named things but I have feeling their reality would have been a pretty dismal experience overall. Hugely bright lights would have meant ultimately dark shadows the minute you walked around a corner which well explains why we're never seen them in period films. About literary references you may well be right.