Sunday, March 4, 2007

A Reminder from Buffalo, NY, Circa 1886

Join us as we dial the clock back 120 years to Buffalo, New York, where we behold the Internet revolution of that time: the advent of electricity networks and their first killer application, commercial electric lighting:

[A] front page ad in the November 27, 1886, Buffalo Commercial Advertiser proclaimed that Adam, Meldrum & Anderson (despite month-long problems and delays) was now showcasing its incomparable selection of black cashmeres, carpets, draperies, bed and horse blankets, cloaks and shawls, dolls, and so forth with 498 Stanley lights run by the Westinghouse system. “There is no odor, no heat, no matches, no danger. We were the first business house in the city to adopt the plan of lighting our stores by incandescence.... The appearance is brilliant in the extreme. The light is steady and colorless. Shades can be perfectly matched. Come and see the grandest invention of the nineteenth century. Two evenings later, on a Monday, the mammoth store was open—not to retail any of its lovely lace handkerchiefs, gloves, silk umbrellas, finest black silks, or eiderdown quilts, but purely to show off the Westinghouse lights. ”No goods were sold,“ reported the Commercial Advertiser, ”and the store was so thronged with visitors it was difficult to get about.“

This excerpt is from Jill Jonnes’ Empires of Light (2003, Random House), which chronicles the technical and business race to electrify the United States. Featured are the intertwining stories of Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse.

These men understood that light bulbs were just one of many possible nodes on an electricity distribution network, but nobody from their time could foresee today, when electricity ”applications“ are so ubiquitous that we rarely think about the electricity part (although ”we“ does not include 1.6 billion people that do not have electricity as of 2006).

The scene from Buffalo 1886 is a vivid reminder of how much can change—and will change—often unevenly and sometimes unimaginably.

1 comment:

  1. In their spring 2006 issue, Cabinet Magazine ran a fascinating article about the history of electric lights. Well, fascinating to me at least.
    A great detail, - that I had no idea about - was the literally blinding power of the early arc lights. Yikes.