When we walk the streets of downtown Columbus today, we expect to be able to see where we're going.
Because our cities have been well-lit for decades, we tend to take streetlights for granted.
But when Columbus was created on a wooded riverbank in the heart of Ohio in 1812, any lights in the town were dim at best. An early history of Columbus described a village whose only lighting came from fire:
"Matches were unknown, fires were started by the use of flint, or steel, and tinder, and the resources for nighttime light were the lard lamp, the tallow dip candle and the blaze and sparkle of the wood-burning fireplace. The streets of the borough, when the borough began to have streets, were not lighted at all except by planetary agency and such cheerful rays as reached them from the windows of the cabins. When star light and moon light failed, nightly streetgoers and travelers resorted to the use of lanterns. The Statehouse (then a two-story brick building at the southwest corner of Statehouse Square) and other public buildings were lighted with candles and sperm (whale) oil lamps.
"During the last of the last half of the (1830s), a so-called double reflecting lamp was brought into use in the theatre and a few of the churches. Meetings of all kinds continued to be announced for 'early candle lighting' down to the (1850s).
"On February 18, 1840, a local chronicler wrote: 'Arrangements are making to illuminate a part of the city on the eve of the birthday of Washington ... We understand that High Street, from the south side of Friend (now Main) Street to the north side of Broad Street, and Broad Street from the east side of High Street will be generally illuminated; and other parts of the city partially so. We are requested to state that 7 o'clock is the hour designated for lighting up; and that the lights should be extinguished by 9 o'clock. We hope all things will be done in order and with due regard for safety."
This illumination was made with candles; the occasion was the arrival of Gen. William Henry Harrison as he successfully sought the presidency.
Safety often was emphasized during an era when Christmas trees began to make their appearance. For most of the holiday season, they stood decorated but unlit. At the appropriate time, as one family member stood by with a bucket of water and another with a bucket of sand, the candles were carefully lit. After a brief observation of the lighted tree with awe, the candles were carefully extinguished -- hopefully without igniting the tree.
Christmas could be a little more exciting in those days.
People in Columbus, across the state and across the country longed for a way to illuminate their streets and homes with something brighter, cheaper and safer than open flames. The answer seemed to be artificial gas. Unlike natural gas obtained by mining and drilling, artificial gas was obtained by burning a suitable fuel at high temperature and capturing for reuse the volatile gas released in the burning.
The use of gas for illumination had begun in England as early as 1813, but it wasn't until the 1840s that a safe and reliable method of gas production was at hand. A Columbus newspaper announced its arrival Dec. 8, 1842:
"The Messrs. Lennox of this city have fitted up an experimental gas works at the store of Mr. George in the Buckeye building on Broadway. We examined them last night, and when we take into consideration that the experiment is on a small scale, hastily got up, we must admit the burners make a very beautiful light. This is the first experiment of gas lights in Ohio, we believe."
Over the course of the next 40 years, pipes were laid and most of the major commercial, governmental and manufacturing buildings in the city were equipped with gas lights, as were many homes in the downtown area. Eventually, the discovery of natural-gas reserves supplemented and complemented the production of artificial gas. Side streets still often were equipped only with oil lamps, lit and extinguished by young boys called lamplighters.
On Feb. 9, 1882, the path of lighting changed again. The Edison system of electric lighting was placed on exhibition at the offices of the Ohio State Journal. The Brush system of arc lighting had been demonstrated a year earlier, but it was not adopted.
The Edison system had better luck. As one account put it, "The system, after some delay, conquered its way to additional favor."
Gas lights did not die immediately. As late as the 1910s, many homes and businesses had gas and electric service. But in the end, electric lights prevailed.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.