‘First Electrically Lighted City’

March 17, 2023
by Mark Ollig

The age of the electric light began in 1809 when British chemist Humphry Davy invented the carbon arc lamp.

He made an electric light using carbon rods from charcoal that had been burned until it was hardened.

Davy connected the rods to copper wires. Then, he attached them to the ends of a voltaic cell battery, producing a glowing illuminance of light due to a prolonged electrical discharge called a voltaic arc.

Nearly 40 years after Davy's discovery, better batteries and carbon rods were developed and used with improved arc lamps providing improved illumination.

These earlier electric arc lamps were, for the most part, impractical for city street lighting, because they required large batteries or generators that drained quickly, making them expensive to operate. In addition, the flickering light and electrode erosion from the intense heat made them impractical.

However, all this began to change in the late 1870s.

In 1878, an American engineer named Charles F. Brush from Cleveland, OH, invented an enhanced version of the electric carbon-arc lamp. He also developed an electric generator that could produce a variable voltage, which could be controlled based on how much power was used.

On May 7, 1878, he obtained US Patent No. 203,411 for his “electric-light mechanism” or arc lamp, measuring 49-inches high by 24-inches wide by 12-inches deep.

Brush tested his electric arc lighting system and power steam generator in the town of Wabash, located in north-central Indiana. As a result, Wabash became the first city to be illuminated at night using Brush’s electric arc-light lamps.

“On Wednesday evening, the Brush electric light, by which Wabash is to be illuminated from a single point, will be publicly tested, in the presence of the city officials and a large number of invited guests. The electric light is to be placed on the summit of the dome of the courthouse, 200 feet above the business portion of the city,” reported an article in the March 29, 1880, Indianapolis News newspaper.

Four of Brush’s electric arc lamps positioned atop the steeple of the courthouse, 200 feet above the ground, were wired to two telegraph conductors connected to an electrical generator powered by a 12-horsepower steam engine located in the courthouse basement.

On the evening of Wednesday, March 31, 1880, a large crowd assembled on the streets near the Wabash courthouse to witness a historical event.

It was reported that an estimated 10,000 people were present.

The gas lantern street lights in Wabasha were turned off.

The anticipation was overwhelming. At 8 p.m., the switch was flipped, and the city of Wabash was instantly bathed in the glow of light equivalent to twelve thousand candles.

At first, the people stood silent, then audible gasps, followed by applause, which filled the air as everyone marveled at the sight before them.

It was as if night had instantly turned into day.

City council members from 19 neighboring towns and the mayors of two other cities had come to Wabash to witness this moment. They were “pleasantly surprised by the spectacle,” saying, “it was even better than anticipated.”

Charles F. Brush’s electric light exceeded expectations and demonstrated the viability of electrical lighting to the world. 

On April 2, 1880, the Minneapolis Tribune newspaper wrote of Wabash, “This city is first in the world to adopt the electric light for general illumination, and considering that the undertaking has proved successful, representatives of other towns remarked that they would adopt the same light.”

On April 10, 1880, Noblesville Independent newspaper described the light as “being soft and mellow, and not glaring and intense as one would naturally suppose.”

The same year, Charles F. Brush founded the Brush Electric Company.

In April 1881, the Brush Electric Company installed lighting in New York City covering a large area, including Broadway and Fifth Avenue, from 14th to 34th Streets, cross streets, Union Square, and Madison Square.

The lighting system utilized two electrical circuits; one focused on lighting the squares through large arc lamps, and the other powered the lamps attached to decorative poles along the city streets.

On Aug. 3, 1882, The Saint Paul Daily Globe reported the incorporation of the Saint Paul Brush Electric Light Company for the “application of electricity to purposes of illumination and motive power, and the introduction of electric light and electricity for the public or private use into any place in the county of Ramsey, in the State of Minnesota.”

In 1889, the Thomson-Houston Electric Company purchased the Brush Electric Company.

Thomson-Houston Electric Company joined forces with the Edison General Electric Company. Then, in 1892, the General Electric company took over the Edison General Electric Company, now called GE.

Charles Francis Brush was born in Euclid, OH, March 17, 1849, and passed away at 80 June 15, 1929, in Cleveland.

His electric carbon-arc lamps, installed in 1880, illuminated the city of Wabash until September 1888.

The development of electrical arc experiments resulted in the creation of various inventions, including carbon arc welders, which beginning in the late 1890s and early 1900s, saw widespread use.

Today, folks still visit Wabash to see the courthouse and its outdoor commemorative plaque titled “First Electrically Lighted City.”

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