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Lighting technology advancements and the rise of cities

Today, the word “city” conjures images of skyscrapers, bright lights and bustling crowds that never rest. 

But cities didn’t begin to develop into the lively places we know today until the second half of the 19th century. Along the way, lighting technology and other innovations accelerated the urbanization process. 

Thomas Edison’s carbon-filament incandescent bulb, or electric lighting, was one important invention that made the rise of cities possible. After Edison patented his bulb in 1879, factories quickly invested in electric lighting technology, which promised their businesses longer hours and more efficiency.  ("Urbanization and Its Challenges" via Lumen).

Electric lighting in factories and urbanization

Although cities like Boston, Philadelphia and New York had existed since early colonial times, urban populations in these areas didn’t explode until the industrial revolution, which fueled the rise of new technology that made life safer and more efficient (“Industrialization and Urbanization in the United States, 1880-1929” via Oxford Research Encyclopedias: American History).

Before the advent of the light bulb, only gas lamps or candles were available for use in factories. The light from gas lamps was not only dim, it was also dangerous and inefficient. Gas lamps required constant tending, had a bad smell, released smoke inside closed spaces and endangered workers due to the open flame (“Artificial Light: How Manmade Brightness Has Changed the Way We Live and See Forever” via The Independent). So when Edison developed his incandescent bulb, factories jumped at what they saw as a cheap and efficient lighting option that could solve these problems.

Electric lights allowed factories to adopt longer hours, and many factories began to operate 24 hours a day (“Industrialization and Urbanization in the United States, 1880-1929” via Oxford Research Encyclopedias: American History). In this way, lighting technology enabled factories to increase their production and productivity without requiring further machine innovations. When electric lighting made longer hours and more production possible, demand for workers to keep the factories running spiked (“Urbanization and Its Challenges” via Lumen). Job opportunities became abundant, and large amounts of people flocked to the cities for work.

Consequently, populations began to shift dramatically from rural areas to cities. In the 20 years after the advent of Edison’s bulb in 1879, New York City’s population increased by more than 1.5 million people (“Urbanization and Its Challenges” via Lumen).  

City lights and modern conveniences 

Today, people associate cities with long work hours, dinner and shows, and even walks down famous streets like New York City’s Broadway in New York City. 

Before Edison invented his light bulb, electric lights were rare and normally only used by the wealthy. But commercially, electric lights had many advantages; for example, they reduced the smell of gas inside factories and the strain on worker’s eyes caused by dim lights (“Artificial Light: How Manmade Brightness Has Changed the Way We Live and See Forever” via The Independent).

In addition, as factories began to operate 24 hours a day, cities also invested in the development of electric streetlights. This allowed them to adapt to the never-ending pace of city life and make the streets safer for workers who walked to or from factories in the darkness (“Urbanization and Its Challenges” via Lumen). City leaders understand that adapting streetlights was integral to maintaining economic growth (“Side by Side: Lighting the Night” via Early American Life).

While many new technologies contributed to the rise of cities in America, lighting technology made urbanization possible by providing factories with the power to stay open for 24 hours, and by lighting the streets for active, safe atmospheres (“Urbanization and Its Challenges" via Lumen). 

In addition, when Edison patented his bulb, he also manufactured an electrical system to power the lights. Before, factories relied on power from rivers and seasonal water flow. With the new electric system, factories could move from rivers and operate efficiently year-round (“Industrialization and Urbanization in the United States, 1880-1929” via Oxford Research Encyclopedias: American History).  

Electric power also became widely available in city homes; this reduced the danger associated with gas lamps and allowed households and families to adapt to the new, late-night city schedule. For the first time, children could be trusted to put themselves to bed, as families no longer relied on an open flame to light their homes at night (“Artificial Light: How Manmade Brightness Has Changed the Way We Live and See Forever” via The Independent).

As city populations continued to grow, available space dwindled. An increased demand for space led to the advent of the skyscraper. By 1900, cities were even more modern thanks to more electric lights, skyscrapers and higher populations than ever before (“Urbanization and Its Challenges” via Lumen).

Further improvements on Edison’s technology reduced risk and increased efficiency. Throughout the years, both the lighting industry and cities continued to grow to offer the modern conveniences we know today. 

The future of outdoor lighting in cities

Today, cities are working toward adopting lighting solutions that are more efficient, longer lasting and closer in quality to natural light. Large cities like Los Angeles and Detroit are adapting LED roadway lighting technology that can reduce the cities' carbon footprint and provide a more even, natural light for drivers and pedestrians ("How LEDs Are Going To Change The Way We Look At Cities” via Forbes). 

From gas lamps to LEDs, cities as we know them today would not exist without the lighting technology that made it all possible.