Image: plaque at 100 Pall Mall, London SW1 (adjacent to the RAC Club on Pall Mall, just to the south of St James’s Square.)
From D. Phil. Thesis (2015) of Laura Elizabeth Ludtke The Lightscape of Literary London, 1880–1950:
“…One of the most important questions to emerge in challenging this narrative is whether electric light is only an incremental improvement over its illuminary predecessor? Consider ‘A Peep at the Gas-lights in Pall Mall’ (1809), an engraving made by Thomas Rowlandson after a drawing by Woodward. After the first demonstration of public street lighting by gas on Pall Mall at the end of January 1807—a spectacle arranged to celebrate the birthday of George III by the German inventor Friedrich Albert Winzer (later Winsor). Winsor was an important proponent of early gas light, establishing the Chartered Gas Light and Coke Company in 1812.
(From metmuseum.org: “Men and women here walk along Pall Mall, amazed at the sight of a new type of lighting. In 1802 coal gas began to be used to light shops and factories. In 1807, a German called Winsor raised £50,000 to brighten Pall Mall in a speculation that failed. Triple flames, called cockspur lights, are seen here flickering in front of an elegant screen of columns that Nash built for the Prince Regent.)
This association of gas light with spectacle and display is an important one, as I will discuss in greater detail in subsequent chapters. For now, however, I want to focus on the perceived differences between gas and electric light. As Nead notes, since gaslight is ‘created through the projection or transmission of illumination’, it ‘differs from all earlier methods of lighting’. Thus, though electric light is differentiated from gas light in that it is the first form of illumination not to have a flame, it also shares the need for a network of supply with gas lighting. Moreover, in this way electric light has more in common with candle and oil lamps, which burn (or produce) light at their source.
One of the difficulties with considering light as a technology is that it is also a visual phenomenon. This is evident when we consider two important visual depictions of electric light: a technical drawing of Thomas Edison’s incandescent bulb from the second volume of the French journal La Lumière électrique: journal universel d’électricité, which appeared in 1880, and Giacomo Balla’s painting ‘Street Light’. Perhaps less visually exciting than Balla’s painting, the technical drawing accompanies an article on Edison’s recent invention, predating the **Futurist painting by 30 years. The illustration of the light is accompanied by a brief review of the product, the majority of which is given over to a press release from Edison itemising its component parts––the glass globe (a), the wooden foot (b), the fastening buttons for the circuit wires (d), the platinum blades (g), and the carbon filament (f)––and explaining how it works.
The illustration depicts the electric light as an object, a source of illumination. Without the rays of light—the ‘electromagnetic radiation whose wavelength falls within the range to which the human retina responds’—produced by the light bulb within the lamp, the electric light cannot be that agent which ‘stimulates sight and makes things visible’ (‘ray, n.’, OED). Devoid of any energy, potential and excitement, the illustration is a functional representation of the object (or at least, the plan of the object); though Edison’s lamp has been ‘recently much-discussed’, the review exists only for the benefit of the seriously interested reader. What the review makes clear for us, however, is that the electric light is not new. Edison’s lamp is just its most recent and, ultimately commercially viable iteration as of 1880. Balla’s painting embodies the Futurists’ interests in concepts of speed, technology, violence, and the industrial city. It exalts light and electricity as dynamic manifestations of speed and technology. Richard Humphreys identifies two possible inspirations for the painting, the first of which, the ‘first electric street lamps to be installed in Rome’, where Balla was working at the time, is more difficult to verify and the second of which, *Fillippo Marinetti’s prose poem of April 1909, ‘Uccidiamo il Chiaro di Luna!’ (Let’s Murder the Moonlight!)––a second futurist manifesto––is more evident if somewhat more oblique…”
**Wikipedia: “To some extent Futurism influenced the art movements Art Deco, Constructivism, Surrealism, and Dada, and to a greater degree Precisionism, Rayonism, and Vorticism.”