Several years ago, I heard a fascinating “99% Invisible” podcast episode on the late nineteenth-century street electric lighting known as moonlight towers. A mention was made of moonlight towers being used in Baltimore, so I began what turned out to be a fruitless hunt for information on moonlight towers there.
Electric arc lighting was developed in Europe in the 1870s for use in lighthouses (Jakle 2001:39) and was commonly used in the 1880s and 1890s in the United States for street lighting. In arc lights “a powerful current of electricity leaps from one carbon point to another, fusing both, the combustion being accompanied by an intense radiance (Baltimore Sun 1882). Arc lights needed daily maintenance, since the carbon electrodes burned out quickly, much like a candle wick consumed by a flame (Jakle 2001:39). Since these lights were often mounted on tall towers to raise their bright light above human fields of vision and the tops of buildings, the soaring heights of the moonlight towers made this daily task difficult.
When mounted on multi-story towers, arc lights illuminated large areas (Figure 1) and helped to prevent night crime. But these lights also had a number of disadvantages: they emitted a loud buzzing sound and dropped burning ash onto the streets below (99% Invisible). They also cast a very harsh, bright and often uneven light that forced residents to use parasols to protect their eyes. The light cast by arc lights was described in contemporary accounts as “piercing rays” and “dazzling” and extending “for a long distance” (Baltimore Sun 1882). By 1890, there were more than 130,000 arc streetlights in the United States (History of Lighting 2021).
Before the invention of the arc light, gas lights were typically used to illuminate outdoor spaces in cities. Baltimore was one of the first cities to use gas street lights, introducing them in early 1817 after Rembrandt Peale formed the Gas Light Company of Baltimore. Gas lights were used to illuminate the city’s streets for most of the remainder of the century, when arc lights and later, incandescent lights, began to replace gas. They would have been a stark contrast to gas lights: a gas lamp has the power of about 15 candles compared to the several thousand candle power of an arc light.
The first outdoor arc lights in the United States occurred in 1879 in Cleveland (Jakle 2001:40) and likely started appearing in Baltimore shortly thereafter. In 1882, the city entered into a five year contract with the Brush Company to furnish 485 electric lamps (Baltimore Sun 1887). By the fall of 1882, the first incandescent lighting premiered in Baltimore at the Baltimore Sun building (Baltimore Sun 1882) and by July of 1884, the Sun had placed fifty incandescent street lights along South Street (Baltimore Sun 1884). Edison’s incandescent lighting began to replace arc lighting across the United States (Figure 2), but arc lights remained intact in Baltimore for another twenty years and co-existed with incandescent lighting. An 1894 Maryland Electric Company advertisement in the Baltimore Sun offered both incandescent lighting and arc lighting, which could be contracted to burn from dusk to midnight or, for a higher cost, to burn all night long (Baltimore Sun 1894). The July 14, 1900 edition of the Baltimore Sun announced that the city was opening a competition for its street lighting (Baltimore Sun 1900:11). The United Electric Light and Power Company had a monopoly and was under contract to supply the city with arc street lighting. An adjacently placed article in the same edition of the paper provided a report from the city police that a third (353) of the city’s arc street lights were not working or remained lit only part of the night. This problem was not new—the city fined the Brush Company in 1893 for the continued underperformance of its arc lights (Baltimore Sun 1893).
Despite looking through a number of books featuring early photographs of Baltimore, I was unable to find anything that looked like a moonlight tower (Figure 3). It is possible that arc lights in Baltimore, like lights used at the Chicago Columbian Exposition and in other U.S. cities, were not mounted on towers, but on poles only a few feet higher than regular gaslights. Austin, Texas is only U.S. city where moonlight towers still stand and they have become part of the local popular culture. Since 1986, they have been designated as state archaeological landmarks and they are also on National Register of Historic Places.
99% Invisible. 2015. “Under the Moonlight”. 99% Invisible podcast. Episode aired January 27, 2015 at https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/under-the-moonlight/.
Baltimore Sun. 1882. “Always in the Lead – The Sun Building Lighted with Edison’s Electric Lamps.” Baltimore Sun, October 13, 1882. Newspaper Archive. https://access-newspaperarchive-com.
Baltimore Sun. 1884. “Giving Out the News.” Baltimore Sun, July 12, 1884, page 4. Newspaper Archive. https://access-newspaperarchive-com.
Baltimore Sun. 1887. “Electric Light Contracts.” Baltimore Sun, April 8, 1887, page 4. Newspaper Archive. https://access-newspaperarchive-com.
Baltimore Sun. 1893. “The Brush Company Fined by the City.” Baltimore Sun, November 29, 1893, page 10. Newspaper Archive. https://access-newspaperarchive-com.
Baltimore Sun. 1894. “Electric Lighting Supplies.” Baltimore Sun, February 7, 1894, page 7. Newspaper Archive. https://access-newspaperarchive-com.
Baltimore Sun. 1900. “Competition for Lighting: Electric Company May Have to “Hustle” for the Contract.” Baltimore Sun, July 14, 1900, p. 11. Newspaper Archive. https://access-newspaperarchive-com.
Garber, Megan. 2013. Tower of Light: When Electricity Was New, People Used It to Mimic the Moon. Atlantic.com. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/03/tower-of-light-when-electricity-was-new-people-used-it-to-mimic-the-moon/273445/
History of Lighting. 2021. History of Street Lighting. Website accessed July 25, 2021 at http://www.historyoflighting.net/electric-lighting-history/history-of-street-lighting/
Jakle, John A. 2001. City Lights; Illuminating the American Night. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
Wikipedia.com. 2021. San Jose Electric Light Tower Illuminated in the Early 1880s. Website accessed July 30, 2021 at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Jose_electric_light_tower#/media/File:SanJoseArcLightTower1881.jpg.