Hi. And welcome to this article about which was the first city in the world with electricity.
Before we get into the history of electrification I have to admit something. I am British, though I live in New York with my family. So I may be a little biased. As this story is about a race between England and the United States. That said, in the words of Joe Friday, I will try and give you “just the facts”.
Also, I must admit that I have a personal link to some of the places and people in the story. Firstly, Joseph Swan’s store in Newcastle was close to where I grew up. Obviously he was long dead by the time I visited. But I still remember the store sign and the famous lamp hanging outside.
Additionally, when I went to university I lived in the next town over from Godalming. Which features highly in this article.
And for completeness I have worked in both London and New York.
One road trip to Wabash, Indiana via Cleveland and a flight to Paris and I would have covered everywhere.
Anyway enough about me and on to the story…
What do we mean by “With Electricity”
So the subject of this article is what is the first city with electricity in the world.
But what do we mean by “with electricity”. For me there are two ways we can go.
Firstly, that the city used electricity. Normally meaning that they had some sort of public electric lighting. Or secondly that electricity was available to members of the public in that city.
Personally I am going for the second definition. In that electricity was available to the public. However I will also cover off who had street lighting first. So feel free to make your own mind up.
Finally on with the story…
Arc Lighting and the First City with Electric Lights
Sir Humphry (no e) Davy built the first electric arc lamp back in 1809.
Arc lamps have two electrodes with a small distance between them. When a high voltage is applied to the electrodes it breaks down the resistance of the gas in the bulb. Causing a current to flow and a bright spark to appear.
The light generated is very bright making it unsuitable for homes. But perfect for street lighting.
The problem with early arc lights was that using them consumed the electrodes. After a short while they were too far apart for the spark to jump across.
In 1870 the Russian inventor Pavel Nikolayevich Yablochkov solved this problem. He mounted the electrodes vertical with a plaster separator. The separator melted as the electrodes wore down. Thus the gap between the electrodes stayed the same. Cunning!
And so it was that the first city got electric lighting…
Wednesday, May 1st, 1878, Paris. Weather forecast, rain.
The Paris Exposition Universelle opens. It covered a huge are of over 66 acres (270,000 m2). Starting at the Ecole Mititaire in central Paris. Then north west down the Champ de Mars to the Seine. Across the river and finishing at the Placa de Trocadero.
On a side note, construction started on the Eiffel Tower the following year. Right in the middle of the site, at the end of the Champ de Mars, close to the Seine. Ready for the Paris World Fair in 1889.
Amongst the exhibits at the exposition was the head of the Statue of Liberty. Coincidentally the company of Gustave Eiffel built the ironwork structure for the completed stature. Sort of a trial run for the Eiffel Tower. France presented the statue to the United States in 1881. And it arrived in New York in June 1885.
But back to electric lights…
As part of the exhibition the Avenue de l’Opera and the Place de l’Opera were lit up by electric lights. Sixty-four enameled glass globes. Each one holding between four and twelve Yablochkov candles. Remember these are arc lighting and very bright. So this is a lot of light.
The carbon rods spluttered and the light flickered but people were amazed by this new marvel.
Thus making Paris is a definite candidate for first city with electricity in the world.
Also, visiting the exhibition that year was Werner von Siemens. While there, he negotiated the rights to distribute the lamps in Germany. He will turn up again later…
Cleveland, Ohio – 1879
Meanwhile, across the pond a local inventor was working in his own lighting system.
Born in 1949, Charles F. Brush grew up, like a lot of Americans at the time on a farm. He was greatly interested in the new lighting science. While attending Central High School in Cleveland he created his first arc lamp.
In 1876, aged 27, Brush secured funding from the Wetting Supply Company of Cleveland. For the purpose of creating electrical generators for arc lamps.
Three years later in 1879 Brush was using his generators to power 12 arc lamps. Positioned around Cleveland’s Public Square they provided 4,000 candles (50,000 lumens each). To give you an idea how bright this is a 60 watt light bulb gives around 600 lumens. So each arc light being equivalent to 83 bulbs. Overall the lighting would be the same as having a thousand 60 watt bulbs strung up around the square. In other words quite a lot of light.
This display by Brush made Cleveland’s Public Square the first first outdoor public space in America to be fully illuminated by electrical light.
Wabash, Indiana – 1880
Brush’s work in Cleveland only provided arc lighting for a small part of the city.
Whereas a year later, in 1880, the authorities in Wabash decided to use electric lighting for the whole town. They had worked out that electric would cost $800 less per year than gas lighting. Quite a lot of money at the time. So they contacted Brush. His company installed arc lamps on towers and the roof of the city hall. Thus providing light for up to three-quarters of a mile from the town center. And covering the whole town.
This makes Wabash the first town to be fully lit by electric lighting in the United States. At least in terms of street lighting.
The Brush Electric Company would go on to provide lighting in many major cities. Including New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Montreal , San Fransisco and not forgetting Cleveland. Fighting off stiff competition from other arc light companies and Edison’s new incandescent bulbs.
Which lead us on to the great inventor himself…
New York – 1878
Two years before Wabash was lit, Edison founded the Edison Electric Light Company in New York. A full year before demonstrating an actual working light bulb in 1879. There is confidence for you!
One of Edison’s major backers was the financier J.P. Morgan. As such Morgan’s house was the first one in New York to be lit with electric lights. With 250 bulbs lighting up the house at switch-on at June 8, 1882. Power for the lighting came from a steam engine driving an electric generator.
Morgan just missed out on being the first private home with electric lighting in the United States. As a mill-owner called Henry Rogers had light in his home in Appleton, Wisconsin on September 30th that same year.
A year later, in September, 1882 Edison’s Illuminating Company opened its first power station. Located at Pearl Street in lower Manhatten. At the point of opening they had 53 customers. By 1883 that had increased to 513.
If you are interested in lighting in the United States then why not see our article on when lighting became common.
London – 1878
In 1878 the City of London Corporation arranged for 16 arc lamps to light up Holborn Viaduct. The viaduct lies north of the river Thames close to St. Paul’s Cathedral. After six months the experiment was terminated. The lamps were removed and the viaduct went back to gas lighting.
At the same time the Thames Embankment was also lit up with Yablochkov candle arc lamps. Remember the Russian inventor from the Paris exhibition.
So London had public street lighting before both Cleveland and Wabash. Though it only illuminated a part of the city.
As well as working on his power station in Manhattan Edison was building another one in London. Again at Holborn Viaduct, under the gas lights. This plant would be up and running in January 1882. Eight months before the one in Manhattan. It was the worlds first coal powered electricity plant. Initially it lit close to a thousand incandescent bulbs. Later rising to three thousand. Before closing in 1886 due to not making any money. Thus, Holborn went back to gas for a second time.
Godalming, England – 1881
Edison was not the only one working on incandescent light bulbs. In 1879 Joseph Swan, an Englishman, demonstrated his Swan bulb in Newcastle, England. Seven month before Edison would demonstrate his. The bulbs were very similar. Though Swan’s bulb had a much shorter lifetime.
Swan would go onto create the first light bulb factory in the world in 1881. And in 1883 his company would merge with one of Edison’s. Forming the Edison and Swan Electric Light Company. Additionally he installed electric lighting in his house in Northumberland in 1878. Making it most likely the first private home lit by electricity. If you think it is cheating to count an inventor lighting his own home. And I kind of agree. Swan also installed electric light at the local manor house of Sir William Armstrong in 1878. Running on the first electric hydro electric plant. Take that J.P. Morgan!
Meanwhile a small town in Surrey, England was experimenting with electric light. Godalming lies 40 miles south-west of London. To this end, in September 1881, a small number of arc lamps lit up the upper part of the town. Werner von Siemens (from the Paris exhibition ) supplied the lamps. And they were powered by the waterwheel of the local mill. With incandescent Swan bulbs lighting up the inside of the mill itself.
After the experiment’s success the local council asked Siemens to light up the whole town. In January 1882 Siemen’s team ran the main cable through the town’s gutters. Thus providing not only electric street lighting but also public electricity to people’s home. Making Godalming the first town with public electricity.
In Conclusion – The First City with Electricity in the World
So we have been through a lot of places and dates. Let’s recap our options for first city with electricity in the world.
- May – Paris has arc lighting in the exhibition of that year. First public electric street lighting.
- October – Arc lighting trialed in London at Holborn and the Embankment.
- Brush uses 12 arc lamps to light up Cleveland’s Public Square
- March – Wabash first town to be fully lit by electric lighting
- January – Holborn Viaduct power station opens. First coal powered electric generation plant in the world.
- January – Werner Von Siemens provides public electricity in Godalming, England. Making it the first town with public electricity
In conclusion, it sort of depends on how you define city and “with electricity”. But I am going for Paris as the first city with meaningful electric street lighting in 1878. Then Wabash as the first city to be fully lit by electricity in 1880. Followed in 1882 by Godalming as the first town with public electricity. And in the same year London with the first electric power station supplying power to the public.
So I hope you have learnt something about the first city in the world to have electricity. And why not check out some of our other articles and reviews.