07 September 2016

Electric Light Races

It has been argued that the modern world began on 4 September 1882. 

At 3 o'clock that afternoon, Thomas Edison switched on his generating station's electrical power distribution system, located on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan.  It provided 110 volts of direct current (DC) electricity to 59 customers near the plant.

While Edison's plant wasn't the first attempt to light streets, businesses or homes by electricity, it was the first facility to make electricity available to large numbers of customers at a price that could compete with the price of gas. Previously, only individual homes and businesses--as well as a block of l'Avenue de l'Opera in Paris--were illuminated by electric light.  And those buildings and streets were powered by individual, self-contained generators.  

Edison, in short, created the world's first central power plant.  It was also the world's first co-generation plant, as the steam engines used to create electricity created a thermal byproduct, which Edison would use to heat nearby homes.
Edison's power-generating plant at 255-57 Pearl Street in New York City

In those days, people were even more fascinated with technological innovations than we are now.  In the case of electricity, it's easy to understand why:  Having such a readily-available power source for artificial lighting freed people (in the cities, anyway) from the cycles of daylight and darkness.  Activities that previously ceased at sundown could continue in the light of the moon and stars--and Edison's electrical lamps.

Le Velodrome by Paul Signac, 1899

Bicycle races were no exception.  In particular, night races on the track became feasible.  One of the first such races took place in Riverton, New Jersey--just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia--on 25 September 1894.

From the Philadelphia Inquirer, 17 September 1894

Apparently, that race was a "hit" with the public, as this report from the Trenton Evening Times of the following day attests:

Now, 4000 spectators may not sound like a lot.  But Riverton's track was a 1/4 mile (400 meter) circuit, which wouldn't have allowed for a large seating capacity--if the track had a grandstand.  Plus, the borough of Riverton had, at the time, a population of around 1200. (In 2015, it could claim 2748 residents.)  Any event that can attract more than three times as many people as live in the community that's hosting it sounds like a success to me.

Sketch of the Riverton velodrome. From the New York Times, 9 June 1895

Anyway, "electric light races" became popular all over the US and Europe.   Soon enough, Edison's development would make it possible not only to hold night races outdoors, but also to stage indoor races--and other sporting events--at any time of day or night.  


  1. i just finished reading Graham Moore's book "The End of Night." It's a fictionalised account of the "current wars" between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, and an interesting take on Nikola Tesla's role.

    As an amateur astronomer, i am dismayed by the loss of night skies to light pollution. One is forced to travel further and further from towns to find a site where one can actually see the Milky Way- something i fear most people have never seen nor even know of its existence. Electric lighting has indeed been a two-edged sword.

  2. Mike: I know what you mean. I have taken to looking at the moon with my telescope...

    Justine: Nice that you picked the painting by Signac. The "Pointillist" style was a radical attempt to base painting and handling of color on scientific findings. The colors of a restricted palette blend not on the canvas but in the viewer's eye. The idea was the basis for printed color reproduction. And the Pointillists, as well as the Impressionists, often took subject matter from the new technology: Steel structures, steamships, bicycles... These artists were anti-academic and always "now", not in a mythological past.

    I would say that people in about 1900 were drunk on scientific and engineering progress. Anybody over the age of 50 remembered a world not all that different from the 16th or 17th centuries. The progress and changes in our time are small in comparisome.


  3. Mike--Even though I love to live in the city, I sometimes yearn to see unobstructed views of the stars.

    The way the "current wars" played out is indeed interesting. How would things be different if Edison's insistence on DC current prevailed--or if Tesla got his due during his lifetime?

    Leo--It's funny to think that the current system of reprographics started with some French painters as the 19th Century turned into the 20th. And what you say about their attitude toward scientific and technological development is spot-on. My grandparents, who were small children during that time, told me stories of life without telephones, paved roads or even indoor plumbing. Their great-grandparents would have understood such a world; I could not!