On a Lighted City

We in the western world take such things as indoor plumbing, on-demand hot water, and instant cooking abilities as not only normal in our daily lives but also as fundamental necessities. We forget that, within less than 300 years ago, such things were practically unheard of anywhere in the world. Those types of things are taken for granted by us; we have little appreciation for the way people lived in recent history.

Take streetlights for example. The use of natural gas for lighting a city brought fundamental changes in safety, security, and productivity/work habits to those inhabitants who were among the first to enjoy this modern invention. While this first system to provide this luxury to an urban population was of crude construction, it proved effective in providing adequate street lighting and became popular where it was first installed.

However, as you can imagine, there were detractors, and these nay-sayers represented loud and powerful interests. Traditionalists argued that nature demanded humans sleep at night, undisturbed by the “unnatural” light thrown off by the gas lamps. Religious zealots warned that illicit and illegal behaviors would invariably occur because humans now had the ability to extend the daylight hours into the nighttime. They prophesied that, rather than the advancement of civilization, the gas streetlights would lead to the destruction of life and culture as they knew it.

Economists and engineers and politicians fretted over who would bear the brunt of the cost for the new system and how to enact it practically. The gas had to be brought in by a pipe system. Who would build that? The fuel had to be regulated; did that mean a tax? Would consumers bear the brunt of the costs? And, while we take it for granted that there would be lampposts, even that detail had to be discussed and decided before the lighting system could become practical. Would one giant light be better than many smaller ones? And who would maintain the system? Who would light the lamps and extinguish them daily? And at what time would those two events take place? You can see that the logistics had to be worked out somewhere along the line.

Ah, such is the price for modernity. And we don’t even think about those practicalities today.

Yet, those difficulties worked themselves out for the first city to have public gas lighting: Beijing, China, 2500 years ago.

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