City Lights

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I DON’T THINK of myself as having a “thing” about lampposts, but when I walk Manhattan’s streets at night— streets naked to the greenish glare of 1,000-watt lights vaulting three stories high—I realize how much I miss those graceful, human-scale streetlamps of my youth.

Mercury-vapor lamps make even the prettiest woman look ghoulish, transform charming streets into the set for The Murders in the Rue Morgue , and imbue the most innocent passerby with the wild-eyed visage of a psychopath.

These are the nocturnal moments when one longs for a time machine. Seventeenth-century New Amsterdam, for example, was pleasantly (if by our standards somewhat inadequately) lit. Except on the nights of a full moon, the occupants of every seventh house were required to hang out a candle lantern (expenses to be shared by the six neighboring houses). Somewhat less primitive were the globes imported from London to grace Philadelphia streets, which in turn became obsolete in 1757. That was the year Benjamin Franklin invented the four-sided, glasspaneled lamp; it had a long funnel to draw out the smoke, allowing the glass to remain clear. Hence, more light.

The true romantic will no doubt hanker after the golden, flickering glow of gaslight, which was first used for streetlamps in 1817 in Baltimore.

Personally I’d set my time machine for April 29, 1879. On that night Cleveland’s Public Square was suddenly and dazzlingly lit by electricity. The electric arc light—the brainchild of the Ohioborn inventor Charles Francis Brush- was quickly adopted by not only every American city but by France and England as well.

Unfortunately the French and English are still following American technology. Their cities, too, are now flattened under the glare of mercury vapor, sodium, and fluorescent. But at least they have left a few old, ornate lampposts around for the tourists. The only thing I’m left with is memories.