How electricity made light available at the flick of a switch – and how it changed life irrevocably
‘Artificial’ light is usually regarded as a surrogate for ‘natural’ light, less good than the real thing. Or, at least that was the case until electricity, which, as Sandy Isenstadt argues in his book Electric Light, changed the whole meaning of ‘illumination’, literally and metaphorically – an epiphany at every flick of a switch. For the first time, light became something both instantaneous, and activatable at a distance, and it is these two features as much as the brilliance of the light source itself that transformed our perception of life, cities, and even nature.
Electric Light is about a technical invention, but it is not about the technology. Rather it explores how electricity created new spaces that were largely defined by and made up of light. The development of new types of lamp – arc-lights, tungsten, neon, fluorescent – is acknowledged but not lingered on. We don’t need to know how it is produced – it is what it produces that matters. For historians, the taken-for-granted, dispersed everywhere is always harder to deal with than the occasional and the exceptional, which cling to a particular time and place. On this account, Isenstadt’s book is a considerable achievement. Subtitled ‘An Architectural History’, it might more accurately be described as ‘A Cultural History’, though one which emphasises the spatial. If this is an ‘architectural history’, it is architecture taken in the widest – and best – sense, as what changes space, and as an agent of sensory perception and of social relations. Architects themselves hardly make an appearance, except to remark on their early resistance to electric light, and on the slowness of their take-up of its possibilities. Instead, the book is about the very particular changes to our ways of being in the world that have been brought about by electric light, changes that are coterminous with modernity.
‘Instantaneous, malleable, ubiquitous, evanescent, electric light is modernity’s medium,’ says Isenstadt. Modern too is electricity’s ability to make spaces less particular in regard to each other: ‘a well-lit workspace no longer needed to cleave to the edge of a building. Easily accessed electric light made space more fungible’. Electricity makes everywhere, if not the same, at least open to many more possible uses. This is a book about modernity; it engages with the theorists of modernity, from Marx to Adorno, to Berman. Above all, it accepts that modernity changes us all irreversibly. Perceptions of buildings, interiors, cities and roads have all been affected by electric light – and we have become accustomed to seeing space in a particular kind of way, from which there is no going back. Modernity, to borrow the title of one of Walter Benjamin’s books, is a one-way street. As the electrical engineer Matthew Luckiesh, head of General Electric’s Research department, speculated, electric light could modernise vision itself.
‘Instantaneous, malleable, ubiquitous, evanescent, electric light is modernity’s medium,’ says Isenstadt
Electric Light, befitting its subject, proceeds by spotlighting certain themes: switches and remote control; night driving; factory lighting; and illuminated advertising – Times Square and its many imitators. Each of these is dealt with in terms of the way that electricity altered and shaped perception. The story told is from the early development of electric light in the 1880s up to World War II, and it is almost exclusively about the USA. These two choices, temporal and geographical, make sense in that the US was one of the principal innovators in electric lighting, and it can be argued that it is when a technology first comes into use that its effects are most marked. As a modern medium, its greatest impact was in the early 20th century, when many of modernity’s more transformative effects were most abruptly felt. Furthermore, Americans seem to have been exceptionally assiduous in measuring and monitoring the effects of electric light on human life. Whether other countries would throw up quite the same abundance of research on electric light as Isenstadt has found there is worth considering. American science – and cod-science’s – fascination with electric light may be to do with pervasiveness of scientific management, and the desire to quantify every aspect of human labour. Research into factory lighting, initially undertaken to improve productivity, overflowed into the measurement of light’s effects in every other aspect of life.
Despite the richness of the evidence about lighting from early 20th century America, the exclusive attention to the country, and to the years before 1945, does skew the story. In the American account of electric light, productivity and commercial gain surface as the two dominant themes. On one hand, lighting in the workplace and heightened attention were means to make workers more efficient; on the other, the spectacle of illuminated advertising in towns and cities stimulated consumption. But if attention were shifted to Europe at the same period, other considerations might take their place. Isenstadt does not write about the floodlighting of monuments and historic buildings, yet it was a feature of European cities from early on – the Eiffel Tower, the Tower of London, and many other monuments were floodlit for reasons unrelated to productivity or commercial gain. Fairs, like the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition, were designed primarily for their night-time, illuminated effect, and although there was a precedent for this in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the sophistication of the lighting effects went far beyond the in-your-face spectacle of Times Square. In cities that already regarded themselves as ‘Works of Art’, electric illumination recast their public spaces and monuments as a night-time experience for their citizens’ benefit. Or, to take a more sinister example, Speer’s dramatic lighting at the 1936 Nuremburg rally, the ‘cathedral of light’, was certainly not directed at either productivity or commerce.
The moment one is most aware of what a technology does is when one is deprived of it. Isenstadt’s final chapter on World War II blackouts is vital to the story
The moment one is most aware of what a technology does is the moment when one is deprived of it. This is as true of electric light as of any other technology, and Isenstadt’s final chapter on World War II blackouts is vital to the story. People had to learn again to find their way in the dark: ‘blackouts revealed the underside of electric light’. Freud had written about the disorientating effect of stumbling about a darkened room looking for the light switch, but now this experience was translated to an urban scale. But it is in this important, and original, chapter that the restriction to America, and pre-1945, become most apparent. Urban blackouts in the US were never complete, and more of a token for the purpose of creating citizen solidarity on the home front; in Europe on the other hand, they were total, and a matter of life or death. Europeans’ scotopic experiences would be a richer story – though, characteristically, it was in America that there was most research into the effects of blackouts. Likewise, the 1945 cut-off date excludes the great power cuts that are in people’s living memory, like the 1977 New York power cut that left nine million without electricity for two days: everyone who lived through that had a story to tell.
What would a longer, more geographically diverse history of electric light tell us? More of the same, one suspects, for the most obvious feature must be brighter lamps, LEDs, more and more lumens, and the great artificial suns on slender stalks that illuminate goodsyards, container terminals, and sometimes entire towns. But then there is Las Vegas, not just an extension of Times Square, but a city of lights made to be seen from a moving car, rather than by a stationary or slow-moving pedestrian. Where the English writer Arnold Bennett suffered linguistic paralysis on seeing Times Square – ‘These sky signs annihilated argument… “You must not expect me to talk”’ – Las Vegas has had the very opposite effect on its countless visitors.
Adrian Forty is professor emeritus at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, and author of ‘Words and Buildings’ and ‘Concrete and Culture’