April 24: Charles Brush patents the arc light

On April 24, 1877, Charles Brush was issued a patent for the arc light. The competitor to the incandescent light, it battled for primacy well into the early twentieth century.

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Humphrey Davy had invented the arc light in the first years of the nineteenth century. Never before had man lighted the darkness with electricity.

But the harsh brilliant arc of light, across a four-inch gap, used a lot of power. Batteries, the sole source of power then, quickly ran down.

By mid-century, the race was on to devise an efficient dynamo - an electric generator - to power the arc for longer periods. Brush perfected a design by Zenobe Gramme. Zen for short, he comes up again in this column, below.

Brush illuminated Cleveland's public square on April 29, 1879 with his dynamo and arc lights. Soon, every major city wanted the system for exterior areas.

When Brush turned the system on in Wabash, Indiana, the streets became lit by a "strange weird light, exceeded in power only by the sun... The people, almost with bated breath, stood overwhelmed with awe, as if in the presence of the supernatural." (Courtesy of Bruce Watson, "Light," Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2016.)

California Electric Light Co. purchased six generators from Brush that year. The predecessor to Pacific Gas & Electric erected two generating stations and a transmission network, and started an arc light service in San Francisco.

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Thomas Edison was just then inventing the incandescent light. Three years passed before he started his incandescent light service in Lower Manhattan, supplied by a generating station on Pearl Street.

By then, the Brush arc light system was illuminating Broadway. Hence the name, The Great White Way.

California Electric Light's rate design was rudimentary. The electric bill was ten dollars per lamp per week. Fixed. No variable charges. (Customer meters hadn't been invented.)

You can run a lamp from sundown to midnight, every day but Sunday. In today's money, the electric bill would be two hundred and twenty five dollars per lamp per week. Pricey.