Three cheers for streetlights

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I'm reading Leviathan right now -- a book that's much more interesting than it has any right to be -- about the history of whaling in the United States. One of this country's major industries for nearly two centuries (one early president called it "our glory"), it was fed mainly by British demand for whale oil. The Brits never whaled as well as we did, and whale oil was known around the world as the best lamp fuel available: it burned brighter, longer, clearer and was less smoky than alternatives. Whale oil lamps made excellent streetlights, and for London -- one of Europe's darkest cities in the early 18th century -- this was a big deal. (Here's where it gets interesting.) Dolin describes pre-whale oil London:

"By the early 18th century, London was two cities -- one by day and another by night. During the day natural light illuminated the city's streets, which were bustling with activity. But at night, the streets became dark and dangerous places. The only nighttime lighting occurred between Michaelmas (Sept 29) and Lady Day (March 25), when contractors hired by the city were required to place lamps before every tenth house. But these lamps were only lit on "dark nights" -- about twenty days per month -- and then they were extinguished at midnight. Thus for much of the time, when Londoners ventured out of their houses at night (if they did at all), they often rushed through the shadows, constantly looking over their shoulders, all the while fearing that they might be robbed or attacked by thieves of thugs who used darkness as an accomplice. A British historian paints a disturbing picture of one of the most notorious of London's night gangs:

In 1712 a club of young men of the higher classes, who assumed the names Mohocks, were accustomed nightly to sally out drunk into the streets to hunt the passers-by and to subject them in mere wantonness to the most atrocious outrages. One of their favorite amusements, called "tipping the lion," was to squeeze the nose of their victim flat upon his face and to bore out his eyes with their fingers. Among them were the "sweaters," who formed a circle round their prisoner and pricked him with their swords till he sank exhausted to the ground."

As you can imagine, the whale oil lamps London began installing in 1736 -- 5,000 of them -- not only stimulated the American whaling industry, but did much to stop innocent folk from having their eyes gouged out on their way home at night. (And they continue to do so today.) Anyone else suddenly have a profound new appreciation of street lighting?

August 2, 2007 - 4:59am
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