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Without Them The Streets Would Really Be Dangerous.

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With the headline of this column your first guess might be the police. I would agree whole heartedly with that assumption and yes the streets would really be dangerous without the police between us and the bad guys. I’m focused, however, on a more subtle issue. Have you ever been driving down a street at night and suddenly had difficulty seeing ahead of you? You are not wearing your sunglasses at night, but the streetlight ahead is not on and the upcoming side street intersection is quite dark. A pedestrian trying to cross the street or a dog approaching the intersection would be practically invisible in the darkness not covered by your headlights.

There you have my topic – street lights. We do take them for granted except when they are not working. How did people manage to travel the streets before streetlights were invented and who first put lighting on a street?

China Volcano
Haikou Volcano, Shishan Crater Cluster, China | Photo by

Here are the results of my research into this formerly dark subject. History of explains that the Chinese back in 500 BC used bamboo pipes to capture volcanic gas leaks and send them to the streets of Peking to be used as fuel for street lamps.

Roman Oil Lamp
Roman Oil Lamp | Photo by Second Life Marketplace

The ancient Romans used vegetable oil filled lamps in front of their houses. They even had slaves whose job was to make sure the lamp always had plenty of oil and stayed lit all night long.

1417 Street Lighting
Horse Carriage With Street Lighting, 1417 | Image by Grace Elliot Blog

Where do we have to go to find the first organized method of public lighting? We have to go to London, England in 1417 when Sir Henry Barton, the Mayor of London, ordered by law that all houses must hang lanterns outside at nightfall during the Winter months. When documenting Barton’s life The History of Parliament -British Political, Social & Local History states “there is no direct evidence of this.’ I imagine that leaves it up to us whether or not we believe Barton’s role in beginning public lighting in London.

Link-Boy | Drawing by William Hogarth through Georgian Index

In 1524 the streets of Paris, France were illuminated by government order. The law said that all houses must have a light in the street facing window to keep the streets from being dark and dangerous. Quoting History of ” One more method to brighten the streets at night were “link-boys”, children servants that wealthy citizens of London paid to carry torches while accompanying them through the city (practice that was sometimes dangerous because they sometimes led their customers into dark alleys to be mugged by footpaths).” In 1667 the French Royal Government under the rule of King Louis XIV the government started installing lanterns on all streets.

William Murdoch Inventor
William Murdoch Inventor, Plaque | Photo by Blue Plaque Places

William Murdock, in 1802, for the first time illuminated the outside of the Soho Foundry in a public presentation using a gas light fueled by coal gas. Five years later the first gas lit street in London was born. It wasn’t until 1820 the the United States that the city of Baltimore, Maryland installed gas lights to brighten their streets. That also created a new job. The lamplighter’s job was to walk the streets as it dusk and light the gas street lamps and extinguish it at dawn. Lamplighters were also used back in the days of lanterns that were used as street lamps. Later developments cancelled out that occupation including the mechanism that automatically turned the gas on and ignited it, then the invention of the electric lighting system.

Pavel Yabochkov Candle
Pavel Yablochkov Candle | Image by ETHW

According to Wikipedia “The first electric street lighting employed arc lamps, initially the ‘Electric candle’, Jablotchkoff candle, or ‘Yablochkov candle’ developed by Russian Pavel Yablochkov in 1875.” “In 1876, the common council of the city of Los Angeles ordered four arc lights installed in various places in the fledgling town for street lighting. There were two drawbacks to arc lighting which included they emitted a very harsh light and they were very maintenance-intensive since the carbon electrodes burned away too quickly.

LED vs High Pressure Sodium Street Lamps
LED vs High Pressure Sodium Street Lamps | Image by PPL Electric Utility

Today’s street lighting most often uses high-intensity discharge lamps, often High Pressure Sodium (HPS) lamps. They have been shown to give the best illumination while utilizing the least amount of electricity.

So, the next time you’re out-and-about be thankful all of those inventors worked diligently to brighten up our lives and without them we would be driving and stumbling around in the dark.

Let me know what you would like me to talk about or explain. You can comment below or email me at:



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