As the 20th century dawned, both elite and masses basked in the marvellous and unearthly glow of the new electric illumination.
Look from a distance at night… it is as if the earth and sky were transformed by the immeasurable wands of colossal magicians and the superb dome of the structure that is the central jewel of the display is glowing as if bound with wreaths of stars. It is electricity! When the whole casket is illuminated, the cornices of the palaces of the White City are defined with celestial fire.
Despite sparking widespread popular interest in the 1880s, early electric illumination was too costly for the general public. The market was initially confined to the wealthiest city districts and to elite leisure activities. Early sites lit by electricity included the House of Commons dining room, La Scala in Milan, and Rome’s École des Beaux Arts. In theatres electrical lighting was used for special effects, drawing in audiences and bringing box-office success. Electric light soon became associated with luxury, sophistication and prestige.
At world fairs and expositions, a wider public witnessed and was dazzled by spectacular demonstrations of electrical light. These demonstrations cleverly exploited an otherworldly quality unknown in earlier forms of lighting. Prior to Edison’s invention of the incandescent lamp, lighting had always been associated with the flickering of fire and emissions of smoke. While the arc lamp had hissed and spluttered in a way akin to flame, the incandescent lamp was unnaturally steady and smoke-free, making this new form of light peculiarly magical.
This mystical quality, amplified in the spectacular light demonstrations that were increasingly popular in the US and Europe, was much remarked-upon. In 1880 a local newspaper reported the lighting-up of the courthouse in Wabash, Indiana, by the Brush Electric Company:
People stood overwhelmed with awe, as if in the presence of the supernatural. The strange weird light exceeded in power only by the sun, rendered the square as light as midday… Men fell on their knees, groans were uttered at the sight, and many were dumb with amazement.
Electrical illuminations were among the most popular exhibits at the fairs and expositions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Organisers quickly recognised their potential to dazzle by creating dramatic effects, lighting up buildings, gardens and fountains. At the Paris Exhibition of 1881 they were hyperbolically described by the Times correspondent as “Greater than anything that has ever been seen in the world.”
The 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition set new standards of spectacular illumination, using a wide range of new technologies to emphasise the three-dimensionality of the buildings and to imitate natural phenomena, such as sunsets. In his 1920 book Artificial Light Matthew Luckiesh claimed that it even exceeded the splendour of nature itself: “It was a silent but pulsating display of grandeur dwarfing into insignificance the aurora borealis in its most resplendent moments.”
Electricity was exploited not only to mimic nature but to enhance its sublime power. In 1879 Niagara Falls was illuminated with electric light for the first time, drawing large crowds.
In 1907, when W D’Arcy Ryan of the General Electric Company designed a far more powerful illumination of the Falls, the spectacle ran for several weeks and prompted an extravagant outpouring of enthusiasm. According to the New York Tribune of 5 September 1907, the Falls looked far better lit up at night than they ever had during the daylight. The dramatic effects of the multi-coloured lights were such that “words fail to describe the magnificence of the spectacle”. Another observer wrote: “It was a riot of glorious beauty, so new, so strange, so marvelous – so like some unearthly and unexplained magic that it held the spectator startled, then spellbound, speechless and delighted.” By the 1920s the Niagara illuminations had become a nightly exhibition and drew visitors from across the country.
Corporate and civic organisations were also drawing attention to their buildings with lighting effects that functioned as a form of publicity. By emphasising awe-inspiring architectural features, such as grandiose classical facades or the soaring height of skyscrapers, they harnessed the symbolic values expressed by light in general and by electric illumination specifically – progress, evolution, modernity and technological advancement. These values were likewise embodied in the industrial manifestations of electricity – power stations, generators, transmission towers – that began to materialise in the urban and rural landscape as the 20th century approached.