From Edison to LEDs: A Brief History of Christmas Tree Lights

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As Christmas approaches, millions of Americans will begin the annual tradition of pulling tangled snarls of lights out of their closets and draping them over roofs, across walls, and through the boughs of trees. The 135-year history of how these mass-produced novelty lights became a holiday fixture is a distinctly American Christmas tale.

Americans have lit up Christmas trees since the early 19th century [PDF]—long before the invention of the modern light bulb. In those days, families would decorate trees in their living rooms and then attach burning candles to the branches. Unsurprisingly, this created a serious fire hazard. For safety reasons, families would gather around to light the candles one time each year for at most an hour, usually while standing by with pails of water and bags of sand to douse the flames if the display got out of hand. Still, accidents were so routine that by 1908, a group of American insurers began refusing to pay claims related to Christmas tree fires.

An illustration, circa 1858, of a family around a Christmas tree lit by candles.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

In 1879, Thomas Edison had just perfected the world’s first practical light bulb and was in the middle of an all-out media blitz to bring attention to his new product. On New Year's Eve, he drew thousands of people to his laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, where, according to Forbes, he showed off his new invention with “a live outdoor display with dozens of incandescent lamps strung together”—what some call the world’s first string lights.

But Christmas and strings of electric light wouldn’t be tied together for three more years. On December 22, 1882, Edward H. Johnson—an impressively mustachioed inventor and vice president at the Edison Electric Light Company—set up a holiday-themed display in his Manhattan home to demonstrate the beauty of electric light: 80 twinkling red, white, and blue bulbs strung between the boughs of a large Christmas tree, which he mounted on a rotating platform in his living room.

A reporter from the Detroit Post & Tribune could barely contain his enthusiasm for the “fantastic tree with its starry fruit” and the novel lights “encased in these dainty glass eggs”—his old-timey way of describing the multicolored bulbs. “One could hardly imagine anything prettier,” he wrote.

The publicity stunt caught the country’s attention, and by 1890 General Electric had begun manufacturing electric Christmas lights. But in the early years, only the rich could afford them. To install the lights, you needed to buy a generator or battery to provide power, and then you needed to pay a trained “wireman” to individually wire each bulb. Decorating a house could cost as much as $300—about $9000 today. According to a dissertation on Christmas lights by Kerri Dean, the expensive lights became the “rage amongst the wealthy,” and “Christmas tree parties to show off the expensive electric lighted tree became exciting social events for children of high society.”

As technology improved, Christmas lights got cheaper and safer. The early versions burned so hot they could still cause fires, but technological advances began making the bulbs safer. In 1903, department stores began carrying pre-wired strings of eight lights for a hefty $12, more than $300 in today’s dollars. Families who couldn’t afford to buy a string of lights outright could rent one for the season for $1.50—about $40 today. By 1914, a string of lights cost just $1.75, and by the ‘20s Christmas lights were affordable for most Americans.

The White House played a major role in promoting the new trend nationally. In 1894, Grover Cleveland became the first president to celebrate Christmas with electric lights, likely to impress his two young daughters. The tree, according to The Wheeling Register, was “very beautifully trimmed and decorated with tiny parti-colored electric lamps in place of the old-time wax candles.” Cleveland's display featured 100 multicolored bulbs—but it was dwarfed by Calvin Coolidge’s extravaganza of 3000 lights on Christmas of 1923.

But the Christmas light tradition owes most of its success to electric companies, who saw the holiday trend as an opportunity to sell lighting products. An undated pamphlet titled “All the World’s a Stage at Christmas and All the People on it are Lighting Prospects” pushed the idea that holiday light displays were the industry’s best sales pitch. “The world at Christmas time is the background for a gay, spectacular extravaganza,” the pamphlet declared, and on the Christmas stage “there are quantities of lamps to be sold, Christmas lighting equipment, wiring. There are kilowatt-hours to be sold. Lighting this stage is profitable business for the electrical industry.”

Just a few years after Coolidge's tree, the Christmas light industry crowned its first king: the NOMA Electric Company, which would dominate the world of Christmas lights until the 1960s. Its founder, Albert Sadacca, picked an unfortunate time to start a novelty lighting business. But the Christmas light industry weathered the financial storm of the Great Depression through an aggressive advertising campaign that appealed to family, country, and “the importance of a properly celebrated Christmas in trying times such as these.” One 1930 ad in the Saturday Evening Post featured a little boy writing a letter that read “Dear Santy, Please come to our hous this time becos we have it lit up now so you can’t miss it enny more.” A 1932 NOMA catalogue assured that their designs “look right to the American eye” and “fit in with an American Christmas.”

The ad campaign worked, and the 1930s became a renaissance for funky Christmas light designs. NOMA produced lights in the shape of clowns, witches, and Santa Claus. Over the years, light designs changed with American taste. The ‘40s saw a craze of Bubble Lites, shaped like the candles families used to light their trees with. The heat from the bulb in each light would boil a liquid inside the candle-shaped plastic mold, causing the lights to flicker like real flame.

A family around a lighted Christmas tree, circa 1955.
A family around a lighted Christmas tree, circa 1955.
Orlando/Three Lions/Getty Images

In the ‘60s, the Christmas light industry looked on in dismay as Americans fell in love with aluminum trees, which are unfortunately good conductors of electricity. Faulty Christmas lights could charge aluminum trees with electricity and zap the next person to touch a branch. Since traditional string lights were potentially lethal on a metal tree, families switched to rotating color wheels instead. This, combined with stiff competition from foreign manufacturers, led NOMA to file for bankruptcy in 1966.

The classic mini light design—the familiar incandescent lights in tubular-shaped bulbs that come on perpetually tangled green wires—was first sold in 1970. They’ve dominated the Christmas light market until the recent rise of LED lights, which use between 80 and 90 percent less electricity and can cost 1 to 2 percent as much to power.

While Christmas tree lights have taken many forms over the past 135 years, the tradition of dragging a dead tree into our living room and setting it aglow has remained a strange fixture of American culture. Just thank Edward H. Johnson for cutting your risk of lighting your house on fire this year.

15 Positively Reinforcing Facts About B.F. Skinner

Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0
Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Burrhus Frederic Skinner was one of the preeminent American psychologists of the 20th century. B.F. Skinner founded “radical behaviorism”—a twist on traditional behaviorism, a field of psychology that focused exclusively on observable human behavior. Thoughts, feelings, and perceptions were cast aside as unobservable.

B.F. Skinner dubbed his own method of observing behavior “operant conditioning,” which posited that behavior is determined solely by its consequences—either reinforcements or punishments. He also coined the term "positive reinforcement." 

To Skinner’s critics, the idea that these “principles of reinforcement,” as he called them, lead to easy “behavior modification” suggested that we do not have free will and are little more than automatons acting in response to stimuli. But his fans considered him visionary. Controversial to the end, B.F. Skinner was well known for his unconventional methods, unusual inventions, and utopian—some say dystopian—ideas about human society.

1. B.F. Skinner invented the "operant conditioning" or "Skinner" box.

Skinner believed that the best way to understand behavior is to look at the causes of an action and its consequences. He called this approach “operant conditioning.” Skinner began by studying rats interacting with an environment inside a box, where they were rewarded with a pellet of food for responding to a stimulus like light or sound with desired behavior. This simple experiment design would over the years take on dark metaphorical meaning: Any environment that had mechanisms in place to manipulate or control behavior could be called a "Skinner box." Recently, some have argued that social media is a sort of digital Skinner box: Likes, clicks, and shares are the pellet-like rewards we get for responding to our environment with certain behavior. Yes, we are the rats.

2. B.F. Skinner believed that all behavior was affected by one of three "operants."

Skinner proposed there were only three “operants” that had affected human behavior. Neutral operants were responses from the environment that had a benign effect on a behavior. Reinforcers were responses that increased the likelihood of a behavior’s repetition. And punishers decreased the likelihood of a behavior’s repetition. While he was correct that behavior can be modified via this system, it’s only one of many methods for doing so, and it failed to take into account how emotions, thoughts, and—as we learned eventually—the brain itself account for changes in behavior.

3. He's responsible for the term "positive reinforcement."

B.F. Skinner eventually moved on to studying pigeons in his Skinner box. The pigeons would peck at a disc to gain access to food at various intervals, and for completing certain tasks. From this Skinner concluded that some form of reinforcement was crucial in learning new behaviors. To his mind, positive reinforcement strengthens a behavior by providing a consequence an individual finds rewarding. He concluded that reinforced behavior tends to be repeated and strengthened.

4. Some critics felt "positive reinforcement" amounted to bribery.

Critics were dubious that Skinner's focus on behavior modification through positive reinforcement of desired behavior could actually change behavior for the long term, and that it was little more than temporary reward, like bribery, for a short-term behavioral change.

5. B.F. Skinner's idea of "negative reinforcement" isn't what you think.

Skinner believed negative reinforcement also helped to strengthen behavior; this doesn't mean exposing an animal or person to a negative stimulus, but rather removing an “unpleasant reinforcer.” The idea was that removing the negative stimulus would feel like a “reward” to the animal or person.

6. B.F. Skinner taught pigeons to play ping-pong.

As part of his research into positive reinforcement, he taught pigeons to play ping-pong as a first step in seeing how trainable they were. He ultimately wanted to teach them to guide bombs and missiles and even convinced the military to fund his research to that effect. He liked working with pigeons because they responded well to reinforcements and punishments, thus validating his theories. We know now that pigeons can be trained in a whole host of tasks, including distinguishing written words from nonsense and spotting cancer.

7. B.F. Skinner's first book, The Behavior of Organisms, broke new ground.

Published in 1938, Skinner’s debut book made the case that simple observation of cause and effect, reward and punishment, were as significant to understanding behavior as other “conceptual or neural processes.”

Skinner believed behavior was everything. Thoughts and feelings were just unreliable byproducts of behaviors, he argued—and therefore dismissed them. Many of his fellow psychologists disagreed. Regardless, Skinner’s theories contributed to a greater understanding of the relationship between stimuli and resulting behavior and may have even laid the groundwork for understanding the brain’s reward circuitry, which centers around the amygdala.

8. B.F. Skinner created the "baby tender."

Skinner was fond of inventions, and having children gave him a new outlet for his tendencies. He designed a special crib for his infant daughter called “the baby tender.” The clear box, with air holes, was heated so that the baby didn't need blankets. Unlike typical cribs, there were no slats in the sides, which he said prevented possible injury. Unsurprisingly, it did not catch on with the public.

9. B.F. Skinner also developed his own "teaching machine."


Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

You may have Skinner to thank for modern school workbooks and test-taking procedures. In 1954 Skinner visited his daughter’s classroom and found himself frustrated with the “inefficiencies” of the teaching procedures. His first "teaching machine"—a very basic program to improve teaching methods for spelling, math, and other school subjects—was little more than a fill-in-the-blank method on workbook or computer. It’s now considered a precursor to computer-assisted learning programs.

10. Skinner imaged an ideal society based on his theories of human behavior.

Skinner admired Henry David Thoreau’s famous book Walden, in which Thoreau writes about his retreat to the woods to get in greater contact with his inner nature. Skinner's "Ten Commandments" for a utopian world include: “(1) No way of life is inevitable. Examine your own closely. (2) If you do not like it, change it. (3) But do not try to change it through political action. Even if you succeed in gaining power, you will not likely be able to use it any more wisely than your predecessors. (4) Ask only to be left alone to solve your problems in your own way. (5) Simplify your needs. Learn how to be happy with fewer possessions.”

11. B.F. Skinner wrote a utopian novel, Walden Two.

Though inspired by Walden, Skinner also felt the book was too self-indulgent, so he wrote his own fictional follow-up with the 1948 novel Walden Two. The book proposed a type of utopian—some say dystopian—society that employed a system of behavior modification based on operant conditioning. This system of rewards and punishments would, Skinner proposed, make people into good citizens:

“We can achieve a sort of control under which the controlled, though they are following a code much more scrupulously than was ever the case under the old system, nevertheless feel free. They are doing what they want to do, not what they are forced to do. That's the source of the tremendous power of positive reinforcement—there's no restraint and no revolt. By careful cultural design, we control not the final behavior, but the inclination to behave—the motives, desires, the wishes.”

12. Some felt Skinner's ideas were reductionist ...

Critics, of which there were many, felt he reduced human behavior to a series of actions and reactions: that an individual human “mind” only existed in a social context, and that humans could be easily manipulated by external cues. He did not put much store in his critics. Even at age 83, just three years before he died, he told Daniel Goleman in a 1987 New York Times article, “I think cognitive psychology is a great hoax and a fraud, and that goes for brain science, too. They are nowhere near answering the important questions about behavior.”

13. ... and others were horrified by Walden Two.

Astronomer and colleague JK Jessup wrote, “Skinner's utopian vision could change the nature of Western civilization more disastrously than the nuclear physicists and biochemists combined.”

14. B.F. Skinner implied that humans had no free will or individual consciousness.

In the late 1960s and early '70s, Skinner wrote several works applying his behavioral theories to society, including Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971). He drew fire for implying that humans had no free will or individual consciousness but could simply be controlled by reward and punishment. His critics shouldn't have been surprised: this was the very essence of his behaviorism. He, however, was unconcerned with criticism. His daughter Julie S. Vargas has written that “Skinner felt that by answering critics (a) you showed that their criticism affected you; and (b) you gave them attention, thus raising their reputation. So he left replies to others.”

15. He died convinced that the fate of humanity lay in applying his methods of behavioral science to society.

In 1990, he died of leukemia at age 86 after receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association. Proud of his work, he was nonetheless concerned about the fate of humanity and worried “about daily life in Western culture, international conflict and peace, and why people were not acting to save the world.”

10 Amazing Facts About Cherry Blossoms

iStock.com/Sean Pavone
iStock.com/Sean Pavone

Cherry blossom season is a major tourist draw for any city that’s lucky enough to grow these ornamental cherry trees. More than 1.5 million people are expected to visit Washington, D.C. this year for its National Cherry Blossom Festival (which kicks off on March 20, 2019) and Japan saw an influx of 2.6 million overseas tourists when its pretty pink flowers started to bloom in March of last year. In celebration of the arrival of spring, here are 10 things you might not know about the trees that produce such picturesque petals.

1. You'll only find cherry blossoms in a handful of countries.

Cherry trees lining a street
"Cherry Blossom Avenue" in Bonn, Germany
iStock.com/Iurii Buriak

Called sakura in Japan, the cherry blossoms of Yoshino and Kyoto are world-famous. Tourists flock to the country each spring to try their hand at a centuries-old activity called hanami, or “flower viewing.” You don’t have to fly to Japan to see them, though. In the U.S., the cherry blossoms of Washington, D.C., New York City, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Seattle, San Francisco, and Boston are all beautiful in their own way. The flowers can also be viewed in many European and Asian countries, as well as Brazil and Australia in the southern hemisphere.

2. The cherry blossom capital of the world is in the state of Georgia.

A street lamp framed by cherry blossoms
iStock.com/mstroz

Believe it or not, the city of Macon in central Georgia is recognized as the “Cherry Blossom Capital of the World”—at least according to U.S. Congressional records. It’s home to 350,000 Yoshino cherry trees, while Washington, D.C. has fewer than 4000 trees. Those who organize the two cities’ respective cherry blossom festivals have engaged in some playful competition over the years. In 1987, representatives of the Macon festival sent army helmets to TV stations in D.C. “to dramatize the rivalry,” according to an article published at the time in The Record. Representatives in D.C. played it cool, with one spokesperson for the National Park Service stating, “I’m sure they have much more than we have here, but we’re still proud of our celebration.”

3. There are hundreds of cherry tree varieties.

Cherry blossoms
The blossoms of a Kanzan tree
iStock.com/Norimoto

Japan in particular is home to hundreds of types of cherry tree—possibly more than 600, by more liberal estimates. Some types bear fruit, while others don’t. The flowers of many trees change from dark pink to light pink to white throughout the different stages of blossoming, while others progress from greenish yellow to white to pink. One variety, called Kanzan, was bred to have “double blossoms”—or up to 28 petals on each flower, compared to the Yoshino tree’s five petals.

4. They don't bloom for long.

A cherry tree might only remain in bloom for one to two weeks. However, they only keep up their “peak color” for about three days, so it’s best to time your trip wisely if you’re visiting a cherry blossom destination from out of town. The timing depends on a number of factors, including location, heat, and daylight. In D.C., the florets typically start to appear in March, and peak bloom (when 70 percent of the flowers have blossomed) generally occurs in late March or early April. This year, the National Park Service predicts that peak bloom will occur from April 3 to April 6, 2019.

5. Climate change could be making them blossom earlier.

The projected peak bloom dates are right on track for 2019, but that hasn’t always been the case. Some scholars have suggested that the trees are blooming earlier and earlier as the planet gradually gets warmer. Dr. Soo-Hyung Kim, an ecophysiologist at the University of Washington who has studied the phenomenon, says that by 2080 we could expect to see cherry blossoms in D.C. as early as February.

6. You can get arrested for plucking a cherry blossom in Washington, D.C.

Cherry blossoms in D.C.
iStock.com/RobertDodge

Resist the urge to take a cherry blossom home with you as a souvenir. In D.C. at least, breaking off a blossom or branch is viewed as vandalism of federal property. Those who break this rule could receive a citation, or worse, be arrested. (Though usually, law enforcement officers prefer to issue warnings or small fines.) It goes without saying that it’s also illegal to climb the trees. If they sustain damage to their branches, they will never be able to grow new blossoms on that particular bough again.

7. The very first cherry trees to arrive in America were a complete disaster.

In 1909, Japan offered to send 2000 cherry trees to America as a symbol of friendship between the two countries. After all, just a few years earlier, U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt had helped Japan negotiate an end to the Russo-Japanese War. Despite the good intentions, the execution was disastrous. When the trees arrived in D.C. in January 1910, the trees were weak—due to overpruning of their roots—and they were also infested with wood-boring insects. Despite attempts to save them, the trees were ultimately thrown in a pile and burned.

Everyone was pretty embarrassed about the whole ordeal, but Tokyo mayor Yukio Ozaki made a joke to ease some of the tension. “To be honest about it, it has been an American tradition to destroy cherry trees ever since your first president, George Washington,” he said. “So there’s nothing to worry about. In fact, you should be feeling proud.” (Washington's cherry tree story turned out to be untrue, but we digress.) Another shipment of trees was sent, and by 1912, the healthy trees were successfully planted in D.C. by then-First Lady Helen Taft.

8. The cherry trees in one Dutch municipality have proper names.

Located in the largest park in the Netherlands, all 400 cherry blossom trees have proper names. Half of them have traditional Dutch women’s names, and the other half have Japanese women’s names. The Japan Women’s Club gifted the trees in 2000, and you can now find them at Amsterdamse Bos (Amsterdam Forest) in the Amstelveen municipality.

9. Both the blossoms and leaves are edible.

Pocky snacks
Japan Crate

In Japan, no part of the cherry blossom tree goes to waste. The preserved leaves are used as edible mochi wrappers (a rice cake filled with sweet bean paste), and a number of seasonal snacks feature sakura as a key ingredient. Sakura-infused versions of Pepsi, Coke, tea, and even Starbucks lattes are all popular drinks. You can also find two varieties of Kit Kats—sakura and roasted soy bean, and sakura sake—as well as Pocky snack sticks that taste like sakura and matcha (green tea).

So what do cherry blossoms taste like? They have a “light, flowery, slightly cherry flavor,” according to Gabe Perez, social media director at Japan Crate, a subscription box service that ships many of the aforementioned snacks, plus other Japanese products, to customers.

10. They were the inspiration behind a record-setting LEGO sculpture.

LEGOLAND Japan, a theme park in Nagoya, set a Guinness World Record in 2018 for the largest LEGO brick cherry blossom tree ever made (although we’re not sure how much competition they had). The tree stood 14 feet tall, weighed over 7000 pounds, and consisted of more than 800,000 LEGO bricks.

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