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I live in a semi-rural community that prides itself for maintaining a quaint, small-town feel, with only a single traffic light – a flashing-red stoplight where two state highways cross – along all its roadways. But even here, where we value our dark nighttime skies, we count on streetlights to help illuminate tricky intersections during overnight hours.

Today’s Latest Streetlights Take a Wires-Free Approach to Vintage Design

Chuck Ross
I live in a semi-rural community that prides itself for maintaining a quaint, small-town feel, with only a single traffic light – a flashing-red stoplight where two state highways cross – along all its roadways. But even here, where we value our dark nighttime skies, we count on streetlights to help illuminate tricky intersections during overnight hours. I’ve always thought of this kind of street lighting to be a modern convenience, but I recently learned it goes back centuries – and its history maps that of lighting technology, in general, with today’s latest streetlights needing little more than a daily dose of sunlight and a battery.

The first city-wide street lighting program began in 1417, when the Mayor of London ordered all homes to keep outdoor lanterns lit after nightfall during the winter. These might have been oil-based or even something as simple as a candle in a glass globe. Ben Franklin brought streetlights to the U.S. in 1757, adding, as he often did, his own improvements. In fact, the classic look of vintage street fixtures comes out of Franklin’s design. The light source was typically oil-based candles, which created enough smoke to darken the protective glass globe to the point of uselessness in as little as a single night. Franklin created a fixture with “four flat panes, with a long funnel above to draw up the smoke, and crevices admitting air below, to facilitate the ascent of smoke.” The decorative finials now topping old-fashioned-style streetlamps can be seen as a nod to those old miniature smokestacks Franklin devised.

Coal gas became a popular fuel in the 1800s, because it could be centrally distributed across an entire city, with electricity taking over at the end of that century. Then a variety of lighting technologies, from mercury vapor, to high-pressure sodium and metal halide, began changing the color of our nighttime skies to odd shades of orange through the 1960s and 1970s. All these fixtures required regular maintenance, thanks to their short-lived lamps, and offered little or no controllability.

The latest generation of street and area lights, though, require no centralized power supply and are photocontrol- and motion sensor-enabled, to help keep skies darker. Packed with their own solar panels and onboard batteries, they can be installed anywhere, with no wires needed, and their LED lamps can last years without replacement. You’d never know these fixtures feature radically different technology from their old-fashioned progenitors, however, because they’re packaged in a design that would have looked right at home a century ago.

“For the majority of places these fixtures can be installed, the audience would prefer something simple and traditional looking, versus radical,” says David Gershaw, chief innovation officer for Light Efficient Design, which manufactures off-grid post-top fixtures through its Solera Solar Lighting subsidiary. The resulting combination of today’s latest technology with a vintage aesthetic seems to me like an approach of which that old innovator Ben Franklin would very much approve.
Photo courtesy of Light Efficient Design
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