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First Mention: The Arrival of Electric Light

Since the early 19th century, inventors had been tinkering with various methods of using electricity to produce light. The New York Times first wrote of the technology on April 15, 1858. That day, “Our Own Correspondent” in Havana described celebrations of Holy Week that included “an electric light” cast across the harbor “revealing the name of Queen Isabel.”

But electricity for light at home was still theoretical. By the 1870s, natural gas was the most up-to-date method for residential lighting. It was a dying technology.

On Oct. 27, 1878, The Times published an article about the declining stock of gas companies, and there was no mistaking the reporter’s delight at their predicament. They were described in terms that today might be used by an angry customer.

“What gas companies have always been is a matter of common notoriety,” the article read. “No monopoly could be more close, complete, and arrogant than theirs.”

But help was perhaps on the way: “As for the electric light, it is in the stages of development. The methods of managing it need simplifying and its glare must be greatly modified before it can come into use for ordinary purposes. The gas companies, at all events, have reason for anxiety.”
It was the first time that The Times mentioned electric lights for residential use.

The first full description of a light bulb appeared on Oct. 30, 1878. “An interesting exhibition of a new electric light,” it began, “was given by the Electro-Dynamic Light Company yesterday afternoon at the corner of Elm and Walker streets. The new light is the invention of W. E. Sawyer of this City, and Albon Man, of Brooklyn.

“It is a very simple affair, consisting of a small pencil of carbon a little larger than an ordinary pin, connected by wires with an electric-machine and inclosed in a hermetically sealed glass globe, which is filled with pure nitrogen gas.”

The Times first mentioned Thomas Edison’s light bulb the same day, on page 4: “The result of Mr. Edison’s experiments with the electric light, which he is confident of being able to divide and distribute in such a way as to make it available for all the ordinary purposes of illumination, is awaited with great interest.”


NYT > Technology

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