Monday, May 11, 2015

Let There Be Light

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

            Last week we replaced all the light bulbs in our galleries with new LED lights.  It took us a good 4 hours of me up a ladder, but supposedly they last for years and will dramatically cut our electric bill.  Standing under their really bright lights, it got me thinking.

            American inventor Thomas Edison and his British counterpart Joseph Swan both patented competing incandescent light bulbs in 1878.  There had been 22 similar patents in the proceeding decades, but theirs were the first truly commercially viable designs.  Over the next 100 years, there were a number of improvements which increased brightness, longevity and energy efficiency.  Compact fluorescent lights (CFL) were patented by GE in 1973 but weren’t manufactured for commercial use until 1995.  Light-emitting diodes (LED) were first patented in 1962, but they didn’t become commercially viable until the 1990s. 
3 different styles of light bulbs, all patented in 1884
            Elmira’s first electric lights were street lights installed by the United States Electric Lighting Company in 1878.  It used the arc lighting system patented by Charles F. Brush.  The Brush system produced a flickering blue-white light across an open arc.  The arc lights, unfortunately, had a tendency toward mechanical complications and burn-outs and were phased out in favor of the more reliable incandescent lights around 1900. 
Arc street light on Water Street, 1889
         In-door lighting using the new Edison bulb was first installed in several downtown business including Hallock, Cary & Co. dry goods store and the Hotel Rathbun in 1882.  The generator which powered them was located in the basement of A.S. Turner & Sons lumber mill on East Second Street. 

Dining room of the Hotel Rathbun with new electric lights on the ceiling and older gas fixtures on the wall, ca. 1890
            Few homes in the city were electrified prior to the 1890s.  The Elmira Gas & Illuminating Company offered natural gas for lighting in middle and upper-class homes while poorer families made due with candles and various types of oil lamps.  The first homes to be electrified tapped into the trolley system’s pre-existing power lines along Water Street, Maple Avenue and other key thoroughfares.  Electrification of the city continued slowly.  Newer homes could be built with the wiring in the walls, but older homes needed to be retrofitted so poorer neighborhoods lagged behind in terms of the technological changeover.  In the rest of the county, there were areas which didn’t have power well into the 1930s. 
Map showing distribution of power lines in Elmira, ca. 1900


  1. another very interesting article i did not know when or how electric became used here in Elmira and Chemung County as a whole , the information that you provided was excellent, THANK YOU !