March 31, 2013

Lighting up

If for some reason you were to look up the town of Wabash, Indiana, on Wikipedia, though it’s hard to imagine why you would, you’d find that it says – just after its location and population – that “Wabash is notable as being the first electrically lighted city in the world, which was inaugurated on March 31, 1880.”

A Brush arc lamp

A Brush arc lamp

The conviction that Wabash was the first all-electric city seems generally widespread, but it rests on a very shaky foundation, one that owes more to 19th century boosterism than to actual fact.

The facts are laid out  here. in a newspaper article (which reads like an oddly translated version of some Teutonic original) and there’s no getting around it: Wabash had a total of four lights suspended over the courthouse.

Cleveland had illuminated a park the year before and Wanamaker’s famous Philadelphia department store had lit up a window with similar lights in 1878. Stop by The Electric Museum for more fascinating factoids.

And who did they all have to thank for the amazing technological breakthrough – Thomas Edison? George Westinghouse? Nikola Tesla?

No, Charles Brush.  Brush was yet another  enterprising 19th century inventor and scientist; he made revolutionary improvements to the electric generator – then a mostly European invention – and  to the arc light. The generator,  with his arc lights, made for an electrical system that was practical well before power transmission was generally available.

Brush in his basement lab with an arc light

Brush in his basement lab with an arc light

Brush arc lights were used in Wabash ,Cleveland and Philly and were the first bright lights of Broadway. The California Electric Light Company (which became PG&E) bought two Brush generators, then four more, for plants in San Francisco and hooked them up to transmission lines. They promised nonstop illumination from sundown until midnight – though the price of $10 per lamp per day was a bit steep.

Charles Brush  sold his electric company to Thomson-Houston Electric ( which eventually became General Electric) in 1889 and retired.  He built a mansion on Euclid Avenue in Cleveland and raised his family there, keeping only a small laboratory in the basement.  He did however install yet another of his inventions – the first automatically operated wind turbine generator which ran the house’s 12 batteries.  His was the first electrically lit home in town and over the next 20 years, the turbine never failed.

* * *

Seems a pretty stellar day to be born – among those celebrating (in chronological order); Franz Josef Haydn, Nikolai Gogol, John LaFarge, Andrew Lang, Octavio Paz, Richard Kiley, Cesar Chavez, Gordie Howe, Liz Claiborne. Shirley Jones, Herb Alpert, Richard Chamberlain, Barney Frank, Christopher Walken, Al Gore, David Eisenhower, Rhea Perlman and Ewan McGregor.  Many happy returns to the celebrants, and we should all have a little Haydn for Easter:



  1. Lovely. I truly appreciate your add-ons. I choose Herb Alpert from that group. Also wonder if the town is on the banks of the Wabash and someone there wrote the song. Too lazy to look it up. Thanks again. Hippety hop!


    Comment by Carol — March 31, 2013 @ 5:24 pm | Reply

  2. i see the light!


    Comment by ninachat — March 31, 2013 @ 7:37 pm | Reply

  3. Too cool thank you.


    Comment by avery zia — April 1, 2013 @ 3:34 pm | Reply

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