The Professor’s History Lesson: The First Electrically Lighted City

Eighty-five miles north of Indianapolis, Indiana you’ll find Wabash. Like many other Midwestern towns, it is rooted in agriculture, particularly producing corn, soybeans, and wheat. However, it’s not Wabash’s production of crops that earned it notoriety in history. Just 136 years ago, Wabash became the first electrically lighted city in the world.

Before electricity, cities used gas to light local streetways. The gas was impractical and costly, so Wabash was researching alternative lighting solutions, reports the Wabash Plain Dealer. After extensive research, Wabash City Council paid Brush Electric Light Company $100 to conduct a lighting test at the local courthouse.

The electric company was led by Ohio chemist Charles Brush, who was finalizing a design of arc lighting systems, dubbed “Brush Light,” according to newspaper archives from the Wabash Carnegie Public Library. Brush’s redesign of the lighting system reduced the rate at which the arc light burned, making it last longer than traditional arc lighting systems. The brightness and longevity of the light made it the perfect lighting alternative for cities across the country.

If Brush’s promising new technology delivered, Wabash City Council also agreed to purchase the lighting system from Brush Electric Light Company for $1,800 so it could use it throughout the rest of the town.

With a lot at stake, word got around about the new lighting experiment. On March 31, 1880, more than 10,000 people from across the country gathered around the Wabash courthouse to witness the dawn of a new era: electric light

The testers strung up four 3,000-candlepower lamps 200 feet atop the courthouse dome. Telegraph wires ran from the lamps down the side of the building and into the courthouse basement, where they were connected to a machine to provide power. Then at 8:00 p.m. the courthouse bell tolled, and on that fateful Wednesday in March the machine was turned on. “For a mile around, houses and yards were distinctly visible, while far away the Wabash River glowed like a band of molten silver,” notes Wabash library archives. The lamps emitted such a brilliant light that the crowd was “left in stunned silence” before cheers erupted amongst the crowd.

However, local reports at the time also remind us that not all of the locals thought the light was a good thing: “at the same time on the outskirts of Wabash a farmer came ‘roaring in from the barn to tell his wife to fall on her knees for the night had been turned into day and the world was coming to an end.’”

Despite some mixed reactions to the electric light, just one week after the test, the Wabash City Council met to discuss if it would adopt or reject the “Electric Light.” The benefits were quite obvious, according to the April 9, 1880 issue of the Wabash Weekly Plain Dealer: “The light has now been burning nearly two weeks, and careful tests have been made as to the cost, which show it to be not only the cheapest light in the world, but actually workings are better than any estimates yet made. Every one admits that Wabash is better lighted than it would be with several hundred gas lamps.”

Since then, other cities across the country expressed interest in acquiring the technology for their own use. The Brush lighting system was in such high demand that the company incorporated and capitalized at $3 million in 1881, reports ETHW, a website documenting the history of technology. Another 10 years later it was absorbed by the General Electric Company, the company we all know today.

Who knew that the predecessor of Texas’s city lights was born in America’s Heartland?