History of technology on the street.

On our walk in the Tiergarten on Sunday, we came across this great little open-air museum of gas lanterns situated at the western end of the park. If you were just walking through, you might not notice that all the lanterns are different, but when you stop to look, you see that each one has a little sign on it identifying its origin, type of design, date of manufacture, and other information.

As you soon discover, this is a cooperation between the Deutsches Technikmuseum and some gas companies, to highlight the gaslight era, beautify a public space, and presumably give a nice, happy, nostalgic cast to the natural gas industry. My German is still quite poor, so I was not able to glean much detail about the exhibit from the signs (which are all in German), but as you can see from the map, there are 90 different streetlamps from all over Germany and Europe, gathered along a short stretch of path.

As someone who knows little about the design of gas lanterns, I would have appreciated a little more history-of-technology interpretation. How, exactly, did municipal gaslight systems work? Did all the lamps in a city need to be lit every night, or were there mechanisms for doing this automatically? Where did the gas come from (was it natural gas, coal gas, or…?), and how was it conveyed? What was the relationship between the city’s gaslight system and domestic gas lighting? When exactly was the gaslight era: what ushered it in, and what replaced it? You can certainly figure out the answers to at least some of these questions from the individual lamp plaques themselves, but I would have appreciated more interpretive signage interspersed along the route.

That said, the sheer curiosity of having so many different lamps gathered in one location made me think anew about the gas lamp as artifact, and with my inability to read the signs themselves, I found myself inspecting the different lamps, comparing them, to see if I could discern any important design differences, or figure out what certain mechanisms did. That in and of itself seems to me to be a great accomplishment.

I’m looking forward to making a trip to the museum itself one of these weekends.

3 thoughts on “History of technology on the street.

  1. Gaslighting was done by hired men/city employees walking about town twice each day — once in the morning to extinguish the lights from the night before, once in the evenings to relight the lamps.

    Thomas Alva Edison made that practice obsolete between then and now – so it would have been the spreading pracitce from about 1903 to, say, 1920 or so (see http://www.enchantedlearning.com/inventors/edison/lightbulb.shtml).

    Edison: HE was still all the rage, a hero of immense proportions, while I was a very young boy, and one heard his name uttered only with near reverence.

  2. Yes, most of those questions were ones I can answer myself, but also ones you would imagine a basic historical intepretation card would provide as important context. The allumeur des révébères I know well from Le Pétit Prince; but looking closely at the lamps themselves made me wonder if at some point someone developed an automatic system for doing this, as there were aspects of some of the lamps the functions of which I could not discern without more information. It’s not out of the question.

    As to Edison, the story of the Pearl Street generating facility is a classic in the history of technology literature on large technological systems. Thomas Hughes, one of the field’s éminences grises, wrote an important book about the development of electric light and power systems in the U.S., Germany, and Britain. His (shorter and more accessible) book on American innovation would be one you’d enjoy. It’s definitely in a box in the basement somewhere. =)

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