A History of Lunarcraft



Megan Garber writes about some of our earliest forays into lighting our cities with giant "moon-towers" which imitated luna, err, lumination:

During the hot summer of 1882, the installation of the new moon towers became its own kind of brilliant spectacle. People gathered to witness the building of structures that represented Progress and Ingenuity and, in a very real sense, The Future. They also gathered to witness some drama. Since electrical engineers were just learning their trade -- that trade, in Detroit's case, being the erection of 150-foot-tall poles anchoring 500 pounds worth of lights -- accidents were, perhaps, inevitable. And falling towers -- thin metal, plus gravity -- had an uncanny way of slicing through roofs as they toppled toward the ground.

The light itself, though, was the true attraction. It was, as Brush had guaranteed, "picturesque and romantic," one observer put it. Within the glow of the manmade moons, "the foliage is weird and beautiful. All places within the scope of light are bathed in the faint but fairy-like illumination of the moon in its first-quarter."

But not all of the crowds were excited about the new buildings studding their town's landscape. On the contrary, "many Detroiters," Freeberg writes, "were skeptical from the start." Some found the towers to be eyesores, each structure braced with a chaotic network of wires and posts. (One man even tried to chop down the wires that hung near his home, an act of civic-cosmetic rebellion for which he was arrested.) The lights also brought unanticipated complications along with their steady illumination. Animals, for one thing, were unaccustomed to the newly extended daytime. Chickens and geese, unable to sleep in this new state of omnipresent light, began to die of exhaustion. 

Humans, too, found the high-slung orbs to be as disorienting as they were ethereal. As tall as the towers were, they still left shadows in their wake -- shadows tinged with sharp blue light, Freeberg notes, which left pedestrians "dazed and puzzled." Foggy evenings, combined with the air pollution of a newly industrialized America, could thrust all of Detroit into effective darkness -- meaning, Freeberg writes, that "Detroiters could only speculate about the lovely sight that their lights must be creating as they shone down on the blanket of mist and soot that smothered the city." Even during occasions when the fog broke enough to allow some light to penetrate to the streets below, "many found themselves groping along sidewalks in an eerie gloom."

I think it was Cynic who once described The Atlantic's Tech channel as half-tech and half-history. I often think that technology is under-appreciated in understanding the advance of civil rights. In the 1860s, Northern soldiers advancing into the South were shocked to see slavery was as bad as abolitionists said it was. One hundred years, Northern whites could see that Bull Connor was every bit as bad as civil rights workers said it was, right from their own couches.

At any rate, I love the historical approach to technology. When I finished reading this, I couldn't quite get Tesla out of my head.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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