Streetlights - Part 2
by Horace Smith



By Horace A. Smith



(Horace Smith’s article, part 2) The Willimantic Linen Company installed electric lighting at its number four mill in 1879.  Their lights were initially carbon arc lamps manufactured by the Brush Company, but those would be replaced by incandescent bulbs in 1883. That early local application of electric lighting may have encouraged Willimantic to replace its gas lamps.   However, other Connecticut cities, such as Hartford, were switching from gas to electric lighting at about the same time. At a meeting on March 1, 1888, a committee presented a report concluding that the borough could be lighted with 60 arc lamps, each of 2000 candle power.  The plan was approved and survived efforts to rescind it.  Willimantic was on its way to electric street lighting.   By May the Willimantic Electric Light Company was making plans for the enterprise. Note that 2000 candle power is a bright light, and each arc lamp was expected to illuminate a correspondingly large area.[1] A typical modern streetlight produces about 800-3000 candlepower, depending upon its type, wattage, and directional properties. Electric street lights began to be installed along Willimantic’s principal streets in 1888, and by November, 1889, fifty arc lamps were in operation.[2] These first electric lights were often installed at major intersections. In the beginning, the lights were not operated all night, but only until the midnight hour. (By1895,Willimantic had a Street Lighting Committee as part of the Board of Aldermen. Requests from citizens to have street lights in their area were referred to this committee. The committee took its job seriously. On April 15, 1897, Alderman Baker and Councilman Fenton made a surprise night visit to the home of Mr. Evans, manager of the Electric Light Company, and invited him on a tour of the city. The three gentlemen inspected every electric street lamp in the city and found “every light burning”. The service was pronounced to be “satisfactory”.)

I have not seen any technical description of the first arc lights deployed on Willimantic’s streets.  However, one can state that carbon arc lamps of 1889 produced bright but glaring light (with a significant ultraviolet light component) when operating properly. To keep them operating properly the carbon rods in these early lights needed to be frequently adjusted, trimmed, and replaced. Some lamps of this type also made an unpleasant buzzing noise. This week’s photo shows a carbon arc light near the Chaffee Silk Mill on Valley Street.. The conical shields over the early lamps were often used to protect so-called open-globe lamps.  The tops of the glass globes on such lamps were open to the elements, and their carbon arcs could suffer from the exposure to oxygen in the atmosphere. If these first lamps were indeed open lamps, as seems likely, the carbon rods in them would last for only about 8-20 hours.  Thus, the lamps had to be easily accessible by ladder or by being lowered on a pulley to allow servicing.       In 1900, the city operated three circuits of street lights: one along Main Street, a second in the Hill district of the city, and a third “over the river”. Even the newer, longer-lasting, arc lamps required frequent maintenance and adjustment.   By 1900, arc lamps of improved design could be purchased. Their arcs were encased in a globe that prevented oxygen from easily reaching the arc.  This increased the carbon rod lifetime to 80 - 175 hours.[3]  At this time, the city of Willimantic committee on electric street lighting became concerned about obsolescence of the city’s lights.  Nor was the committee overly happy with the performance of the electric light company. (to be continued)








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