Blackpool Illuminations were switched on for the first time on this day in 1879. The Illuminations at Blackpool have become a massive event which is held between the end of the summer season and the beginning of November. Around a million bulbs are used and the lights stretch for almost six miles along the seafront. They attract millions of visitors and bring a great deal of revenue to the town. Many people drive along the promenade, but it is also possible to take a tram or even a horse-drawn carriage. It begins with a ceremonial switch on by someone famous. In 2015 it was Tim Burton. In 1977 they were switched on by a horse. The horse, a Grand National winner called Red Rum, was given a special pedal rather than a button for the lights, in case you’re wondering. On the same day he also helped to open a roller coaster at the Pleasure Beach.
Blackpool had been a popular resort since the 1840s when a railway was built, connecting it with the industrialised parts of Northern England. Although they already had gas lighting in the streets, the Council decided to set aside £5,000 to experiment with electric lighting. The 1879 Illuminations were, of course, nothing like as grand as the ones we see today. In fact they were a lot smaller that you might expect. There were only six lights. (some sources claim there were eight) Never-the-less the event still attracted between 70,000 and 100,000 visitors. What you need to understand is that street lights powered by electricity were a very new thing indeed. It would be over a year before Edison patented his first light bulb. The only other electric street lights in the country were at the Thames Embankment in London. The lights used were arc lamps and they required steam engines to generate the electricity to power them. There was no such thing as a power station. Arc lamps are extremely bright. Each one shined with the light of ten thousand candles. People called it Artificial Sunshine. As you can see from the announcement above, there were other spectacles on offer that day. I haven’t been able to find out whether the shells mentioned were sea shells or explosives.
The arc lamps relied on an arc of electricity that was produced between two carbon rods. The light lasted only until the rods burned away, which could be as little as two hours, so they required a lot of maintenance. When incandescent light bulbs became available they quickly replaced arc lamps. Also the light generated by early arc lamps produced a very high level of ultraviolet light which ultimately made them unsuitable for street lighting. They were just too bright to be comfortable. The lamps were still used for quite a while in industrial settings and also for lighting film sets. Supposedly, the reason actors took to wearing sunglasses was because they needed to rest their eyes between takes. So maybe it was arc lamps like the ones at Blackpool that helped make sunglasses cool.