Skip to main content

Full text of "The history and development of street lighting in Washington."

See other formats


presented to 



Allen Merane, *37 
April 17, 1936 


The evolution of street lighting in Washington has been like that 
of many other cities of its type. The three principle systems of lighting in 
their order of installation were J oil, gas, and electric. 

The first stage, oil street lighting, was in use during the first 
fifty years of the nineteenth century. As soon as gas was developed to the 
point where it could be manufactured commercially, the gas street lights super- 
seded the oil lamps. 

Gaa street lighting lasted throughout the nineteenth century and 
through the first thirty years of twentieth century. The types of lamps used 
were the flat-flame and then the incandescent mantle lamp. It is recognized 
that the exit of gas street lighting was far overdue and this can be attribu- 
ted to difficulty of obtaining funds from Congress for such changes. This 
period also saw the rebirth of the oil lamp due to the slow expansion of gas 
and electric street lighting. 

Although electric street lighting appeared in 1885, it did not come 
into general use until the r'evelopment of the tungsten incandescent lamp. The 
arc lamps was the first type used there being the open, enclosed, and magnetite 
arcs, the last being still in use. Also some twenty-five cp carbon filament 
lamps were in use at the end of the nineteenth century. 

The march of street lighting progress has been up until the present 
time in a foward direct line. The depression has caused Congress to cut the 
District appropriation, thus removing from service 1,281 lamps and reducing 
the candle power of 4,610 lamps. Xt is to be hoped that t is move is only 
temporary and the street lighting division will recieve sufficient funds to 
continue its good work. 



At first, streets were lighted for our personal satisfaction in be- 
ing able to go about at night with a minimum of inconvenience. We must recog- 
nize that it is indeed a great luxury now to be out at night when we stop and 
think what a hardship it must have been in the days of our forefathers to use 

a pine torch, later a candle or finally a lantern, in order to go from one 
place to another after dark. Now, however, streets are lighted not merely 
for our personal convenience but to reduce crime, to reduce accidents, to 
speed up traffic, to increase civic pride, to stimulate business and other 
activities and thereby boom or exploit the city itself, 

"When streets are properly lighted, crime is reduced to a minimum 
which in itself is of paramount importance to both the city and the individ- 
ual. The better the street lighting, not only on busy thoroughfares, but also 
on alleys, side streets, etc., the harder it will be for crime to be committed 
and the criminal to escape under cover of darkness. 

Accidents can be greatly reduced by intelligent, proper and adequate 
street lighting and at the same time traffic may be speeded up with a degree 
of safety comparable to that attained by daylight. Traffic conditions today 
are entirely different from what they were a decade ago — the automobile was 
then just becoming a necessity — today there are so many of them that they 
constitute a menace to life and limb. This menace has been met to some extent 
by day but little has been done to combat it at night. Furthermore, the re- 
quirements of traffic are increasing continuously. It haa been conservatively 
estimated that, for every dollar per capita per year spent for additional 
street lighting, there would be three dollars per capita saved due to fewer 
accidents, lawsuits, doctors' and hospital bills, etc. 

The psychological aspects of street lighting are emphasized by the 
necessity of lighting the surroundings as well as the s treet surface itself. 


Thls is particularly true with the meny public monuments and buildings of 
Washington , the beauty of -which should be conserved at night through proper 
lighting. It is not to be expected that night illumination can ouite equal 
day illumination, either in respect to intensity or direction of light, but 
it is possible to produce artificial quality end quantity of light the latter 
being purely a function of expense. Desirable results can be obtained by us- 
ing large units of not too great brilliancy placed attractively in the field 
of vision, as with the Capitol and Washington Monument, producing pleasant 
changes in direction of the shadows on the buildings, thereby helping vision 
and bringing out the architectural beauty. 

Street lighting likewise is responsible for bringing about civic 
betterment, civic pride and civic expansion. In many eases insufficient illum- 
ination has delayed the progress of cities or towns and often a slight improve- 
ment in illumination has resulted in considerable progress. 

Street lighting had its beginning in Washington at the start of the 
nineteenth century. On January 12, 1803 an ordinance -was passed by the city 
council directing the Mayor "to cause lamps to be placed on the most public ave- 
nues and streets, to supply them with oil, and to employ persons to attend to 
lighting them and keeping them in order". These oil lamps were burred through- 
out every night during the year until 1830 when for thesake of economy the lamps 
were only lighted from the first day of December to the 30th day of April. 
This act marked the beginning of Washington' s "moonlight" system which contin- 
ued until the end of the nineteenth century. 

It was only natural in the fifties that gas street lighting should 
replace oil. The first attempt at gas illumination was made in 1846 when 
lamps burning Crutchett's Solar Gas, which was produced from oil, were pieced 
on Capitol Hill end North Capitol Street. These lamps gave a very satisfact- 
ory and brilliant light but since it was impossible to manufacture this gas 
at a profit the experiment failed. Developments in gas manufacturing made 


it possible to operate this type of lamp at a lower cost than the oil lamp. 
On June 3, 1853 an ordinance was passed directing the Mayor "to erect gas 
lamp posts upon the application of the owners of more than half the proper- 
ty in any portion of a street not less than a square, the cost to be borne by 
the property fronting on that portion of the street". The gas lamp replaced 
the oil lamp quickly until 1875 when only gas was used. At this time there 
were 3,561 flat-flame gas lamps in use, each which burned 2200 hours and 10 
minutes a year. 

The first attempt at electric lighting was made in the fall of 
1881 at the dedication of the statue to Generrl Thomas in Thomas Circle. 
It was planned to use are lamps supplied with current from a generator in a 
sawmill. Due to defects in the wiring system used this attempt failed. The 
result of this experiment was the incorporation of the Heisler Electric Light 
Company with a small experimental plant in the T.'ashin'jton Post Building supply- 
ing current to a small number of lights in the neighborhood of Pennsylvania 
Avenue and 10th street. In 1882 this company was taken over by the United 
States Electric Light Company which at the end of its first year of operation 
had in use 90 arc and 100 incandescent lamps. The company then proceeded to 
increase its equipment and reach out for business. It had plenty of money 
availiable but no business as there was popular timidity as to electric cur- 
rent and strong opposition from organizations interested in gas. This company 
ym.s intent on using modern devices and methods and in 1884 laid an underground 
conduit on Pennsylvania Avenue and other streets being one of the pioneers of 
underground conduit construction in which its expensive system was regarded as 
a model. During the first two years of its life the lights were only on 
Pennsylvania Avenue end these at the company's ex enst , Later lights were 
placed on F street when a number of property holders end merchants decided to 
obtain arc lamps for which they subscribed a sum of money and thus gave their 
stroet en unassailable business supremacy which has continued to the present 



Until 1884, all electric street lighting had been carried on by 
private interests at their own expense. On August 15, 1884, the District 
Government entered into a contract with the Brush Swan Electric Company 
for the lighting of Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the Treasury, 
and all streets radiating from the Capitol for 5000 yards. Experiments were 
made with 2000 candle power arc lamps, using different types of reflectors, 
placed on the dome of the Capitol and also the roof of the Treasury. This 
was found to be unsatisfactory and dangerous owing to the light being high 
and concentrated causing persons driving on the street to become confused 
and blinded. Also, in places where there were trees the light was unable to 
penetrate the dense foliage thus leaving the sidewalks perfectly dark. 
These lamps replaced 278 gas lamps, but on October 1, 1B84 were abandoned and 
the gas lamps relighted. The Brush Swan Company wae bought in 1885 by the 
United States Electric Light Company when the latter' s plant was destroyed by 
fire. On January 1, 1885 the "District Government contracted with the United 
States Electric Light Company for lighting of P Street, Worth West from ninth 
to Fourteenth Streets with fifteen arc lamps on iron posts with underground 
wires, to replace twenty gas lamps. This provided very satisfactory lighting 
except that in many places the foliage was so dense eo as to impair the dist- 
ribution of the light. 

The type of lamp used at this time was the open arc consisting of 
two carbon electrodes exposed to the air. A gravity feed was used and the up 
motion of the positive electrode was obtained by means of a solenoid. The 
positive carbon had a life of only ten hours which meant that it required as 
much attention as a gas lamp. Dug to the crater formed on the positive carbon, 
light from the lamp was concentrated and poor distribution resulted. Later 
this type lamp was replaced by the closed arc lamp. The carbons in this lamp 

were enclosed from air hv » =mnat-o + «, „„. j 

by a separate covering, F i virig the carbon longer Uf ^ 


This Yias about 100 hours which vms an improvement over the open type* The 
carbons also burned 7,1 th parallel faces thus allowing a 180 degrees distri- 
bution which made up for the reduction in their candle power to 1000. 

During the year of 1888, the number of arc lamps increased to 105, 
burning 4,289 hours from sunset to sunrise against 2600 hours for the gas lamps. 
The Superintendent of Lamps in this year requested that the gas lamps be burned 
for 3200 hours a year end that money be appropriated for the trimmimg of trees. 
Washington, at this time, was the only city of its size on a moonlight sched- 
ule, the gas lamps being dark during a part of the summer. It iras necessary 
to have the year around lighting because of storms in the summer, darkness 
caused by shadows of tall buildings, and the increasing denseness of the fol- 
iage of trees . 

The year 1888 also saw the rebirth of the kerosene oil lamp. This 
was used in many alleys and suburban localities where gas mains had not yet been 
laid or the cost of electric lighting was too high, but where street lighting 
was necessary. It was also suggested that the sixteen candle power gas lamps 
be replaced with forty or fifty candle power incandescent electric lamps. 

In 1892 there were in use 5,496 gas, 539 oil, and 324 arc lamps. 
Two years later a change was made from kerosene oil to naptha in the oil lamps. 
In 1896, the first District paid for inc&ndescent lamps appeared. These were 
the carbon filament type and seventy were put into use. This year also saw 
the incorporation of the Potomac Electric Power Company. The next year marked 
the beginning of the present day system with the abandonment of the moonlight 
schedule for en all-night every-night schedule, the lamps teing lighted forty- 
five minutes before sunset and turned off forty-five minutes after sunrise. 

The Electrical Department of the Districtof Columbia was established 
in 1898 having charge of lighting the streets. All the work in connection 
with street lighting was done by private corporations operating undsr ennual 
contract with the District. Materials and lebor were supplied by them at a 


flat rate per annum for each lamp maintained. The character of service given 
was checked by the department inspectors , All changes and extensions "were and 
still are ordered through this department and the work done by the private 
corporations. The consolidation of the Potomac Electric Power Company with 
the United States Electric Light Company in 1902, left only the former in the 
electric field in Yfashington. 

In 1904, the oil lamps were changed from the old style flat- flame 
Wellington burner to the Welsback incandescent mantle. The cost and number 
of lamps used in this year is listed as follows* 

6700 flat-flsme gas at $20 per year. 

950 Welsback gas at |21 per year. 

1400 Welsback naphtha at $22,60 per year, 

900 incandescent 25 candle power electric at $20 per year. 

990 enclosed arc at $85 per year. 
The incandescent lamps were used principally in the suburban districts where 
overhead wiring was not objectionable, they being connected in multiple. The 
arc lamps were all connected on underground circuits, 380 of the low tension 
enclosed type being operated in multiple on the Edison three wire system in 
the heart of Washington's business section. The other 610 were of the series 
enclosed type. 

The magnetite arc lamp was introduced to Washington in 1907. This 
lamp had as its positive electrode a block of copper of 4,000 hours of life 
and a bar of magnetite of 1/XX3 hours life as the negative electrode. Its long- 
er life brought its maintenance cost below that of the enclosed arc and it is 
only natural that it was substituted for the latter. This year also saw change 
from the flat-flsme gas lamp to the mantle gas leaving only 31 of the latter in 
service. At this date there vrare 12,944 lamps >f all kinds in service. 

The next year the present incandescent system started. Until this 
time only 25 candle power carbon filament incandescent multiple lamps had been 


used. To these .were added the folio-wing: 

40 cp metalized filBment. 
40 op tungsten. 

50-75-100 cp met all zed filament. 
Also, in this year a new gas lamp, the four flower Hernst lamp was introduced. 

In 1909 extensive tests were made on all types of lamps in use. 
The result of these tests clearly showed the superiority of the incandescent 
lamp over the arc lamp. For small distances from the lamp the latter gave 
more light but after a certain distance the incandescent lamp provided more 
and better light. Also arc lamps were spaced far apart, due to their high 
candle power and the failure of one threw a large area into darkness while the 
reverse was true of the incandescent lamp. The tests also sounded the death 
knell of the four glower Hernst lamp whose operation and maintenence had prov- 
ed unsatisfactory. Two new types of lamps were added, the seventy- five op 
tungsten incandescent and an alternating current enclosed magnetite arc. 

The naphtha lamps were taken out of service in 1912, These lamps 

had been regarded as a fill-in and their replacement was recongnized as long 

overdue. Forty cp gas and incandescent lamps were put in their place. The 

costs of the lamps were $22.80, for the oil, $18,40 for the gas, and #15, for 

the incandescent. The superiority of the electric lamp over gas as regards to 

light was recognized before this, but now it can be seen that the former cost 

less. The next year an act was passed requiring all enclosed ere lamps be 

changed to magnetite arcs, this being completed in 1916. The lamps in use 

this year were as follows: 

Gas mantle-10,248. 


6.6 ampere magnetite-317 

4.0 ampere magnetite- 52 3 

Electric incandescent 


Electric incandescent (cont.) 
250 cp series-4 
100 op series-3,428 
100 cp multiple- 98 
60 cp series-3,323 
60 cp multiple-321 
Four glower Nemst-C4 
Street designate on-479 
The Hernst lamps were all replaced in 1919 with 100 cp incandescent 
multiple electric lamps. 

The 600 and 400 cp series incandescent lsi;ips were added in 1923. 
Three years later gas street lighting reached its peak with 12,065 gas lamps 
in use. In this year only a few four ampere magnetite lamps were left due 
to the desire to unify the system at 6.6 amperes. From this year the gas 
lamps decreased in number. This step was reconized as long overdue, for the 
electric lamp had far out matched the gas lamp in both pwer and efficiency. 
The gas lamps in use were of the 60 cp single burner and 120 cp double burner. 

At the present time there is in use, 53 gas lamps which are being 
taken out of service as soon as they fail. There is also 28,701 incandescent 
lamps end 846 arc . The arc lamps are being replaced by 1000 cp incandescent 
lamps, as it is desired to eliminate direct current from the system, this being 
supplied by mercury arc rectifiers in the substations. 

The planning of a city's street lighting system is recognized today 
to be a far more complex and difficult proposition than it was considered a 
few years ago. Street lighting expertness can only be acquired after long 
experience and intimate acquaintance with the various factors as engineering, 
physiological, psychological, economic, etc., entering into the problem, bec- 
ause engineering factors, such as foot-candle intensities, photometric data, 


etc, are among the least of our considerations. This is evident, if it is 
to be remembered that the success of the results obtained must be measured by 
the degree of satisfaction given to the eye. This fact also explains -why the 
standards of street lighting are continually channing. Tftiat was considered 
good lighting yesterday, is discarded today for higher intensities, more pleas- 
ing distribution of light, or both. Not only are our standards getting more 
exacting day by day but the conditions to be met are changing continually. 






^t n »• 



Flat-Flame Oas Lamp 



9.6 ampere Open Arc Lamp 



9.6 ampere Open Arc Lamp 






60 cp Tfelsback C~as Lamp 


Series Enclosed Arc Lamp 


6.6 ampere Enclosed Arc Lamp 





Fultiple C?rcuit Enclosed Arc Lamp 


6.6 ampere Magnetite are lamp 




* * -- _ 


6}S ampere Fagnetite A r c Lamp 






6.6 ampere Magnet He Arc Lamp 



Electric Fire Alarm Lamp-twenty- four hours service. 







Series Incandescent Electric Lamp 






100 cp Incandescent Electric lamp with Radial TTave Reflector 
used for Suburban lighting 


1. Mr. Patterson- Street lighting Engineer, Potomac 
Electric Power Company. 

2. Mr. Allen- Washington Gas light Compsny. 

3. Reports of Commissioners of The District of Columbia. 

4. History of the City of Washington by William Tindall, 

5. Photographs by courtesy of Street Lighting Di-wision of 
the Electrical Department.