Sunday, June 23, 2019

Street Lights - Kerosene to LEDs

Starting 1878, the Town of Maynard committed to shining a light (lights, actually) on the nighttime thoroughfares of this new town. Amory Maynard, 74 years old at the time, was on the committee, as were Joel Abbott and John K. Harriman (grocery owner, father to sons who later operated Harriman Bros. New Method Laundry). The result was twenty-five, six-foot tall street lamps installed on downtown streets,

Example of a kerosene street lamp from another town
(internet download). Click on photos to enlarge. 
 Lighting streets expanded over time. The original effort, under management of a superintendent of street lamps, expanded to 36 lamps, to be lit 17 nights a month. By 1891, railing against darkness encompassed 74 lamps, lit 19 nights a month, sunset to midnight. (anyone out past midnight was expected to have their own kerosene lamp). Records show Fred Taylor as the last lamplighter, in 1901, paid 3.5 cents per lamp. The job was not easy. A horse-drawn wagon went from lamp to lamp each evening. From a ladder, wicks were trimmed, glass cleaned of soot, more kerosene added if needed, and lit. After midnight a second visit was required to turn down the wicks, thus extinguishing the lamps. A few businesses, but not the Town, supplemented street lights with their own far more luminous gaslights.

Night lighting via oil or kerosene lamps was not a novel concept. In cities, people out afoot at night could hire lantern-bearers to escort them from place to place. By the mid-1700s Paris had thousands of oil lamps. Kerosene, which burned cleaner than plant or animal (whale) oils, was originally made by heating coal in the absence of oxygen, liberating coal gas, coal tar and crude kerosene – then known as coal oil. Processes extracting and purifying kerosene were perfected and patented in the 1850s. In time, petroleum became the preferred raw material for extracting kerosene, as it is today. Kerosene (also known as paraffin oil) is used in heaters and for cooking in areas of the world without access to natural gas.

Kerosene road torches, also called smudge pots, pre-dated battery-powered 
lights as a means of indicating road construction barriers. The most popular
 model was THE TOLEDO TORCH (Internet download).
People of a certain age may remember driving through construction sites at night, the sides of the road sporting 55-gallon metal barrels as barriers, and instead of battery-powered lights, kerosene-burning road torches, which were black, rounded top, a bit smaller than a bowling ball, open-flame. The effect of this lurid, flickering light was to make one feel one was driving through hell, or if not hell, a road next door to hell.  

September 1, 1902 saw a contact between the Town of Maynard and the American Woolen Company (AWC) to provide power for 92 electric lights. As with back in the kerosene days, the lights were not turned on during nights when moonlight sufficed, and were not lit all night. Over years, the extent of electric lighting expanded both for area and nights’ duration. News items in the September 1920 newspaper noted that a proposal was being considered to expand night lighting hours from eight hours to all night, at an estimated revised operating cost of $22 per light per year. At that time Maynard has approximately 250 street lights.

Circa 1931, the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of Boston began supplying power, there having been contentious debate that the American Woolen Company charged more than market rates for its monopoly on electric power. An engineers’ trivia fact here is that AWC power was 40-cycle alternating current while the U.S. national standard had settled on 60-cycle (many countries use 50-cycle). A lower frequency had the advantage of less power loss during transmission, the downside being a noticeable flicker in incandescent light bulbs and arc-type street lamps that were common back then.

Today, Maynard’s several thousand street lights are all LEDs (light emitting diodes) with the exception of early 20th century style ‘historic’ fixtures in downtown locations. The conversion to LEDs was expensive, but power requirements are lower, and the lights are supposed to last 15-20 years, so maintenance costs are lower. Additional advantages over the replaced yellow-tinted sodium lamps and white-tinted metal halide lamps included reducing glare impact on night vision and less light pollution. One negative is that street-directed LEDs leave sidewalks relatively dark. This can be remedied by adding sidewalk-directed lights. Unknowns include the long-term effects of LED street light wavelengths (less yellow, more blue and green) on plants and nocturnal animals.

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