At the dawn of the age of electricity, many people believed “the future of municipal lighting was glowing orbs suspended high above cities” in the form of moon towers:
Aurora, Illinois — ironically named only in retrospect — was one of the early places to experiment with artificial moonlight. The town contracted with Charles Francis Brush, an inventor and an entrepreneur and one of Edison’s chief competitors in the race to electrify America. In his wonderful book The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America, Ernest Freeberg describes what it’s like to be a town lit, suddenly, by imitation moons. Brush installed his enormous lights, Freeberg notes, via six iron towers studded across Aurora — structures “rising like gigantic pencils over the city’s rooftops.” Stretching high above the skyline, Brush arc lamps provided intense light to the areas directly below them. They also, Freeberg writes, “bathed the surrounding fields and ‘lonely outskirts’ of the city with something like ‘full summer moonlight.'”
Amazingly, 17 of the towers erected in 1894-95 still exist, in Austin:
(You may remember the teenagers from Dazed and Confused assembling kegs for a “party at the moon tower.”) They are now, in the words of one historian, “much-loved curiosities” — objects, generally speaking, of awesomeness rather than awe. And they are, it seems, the last of their kind in America.
(Photo of Austin’s moon tower by Matthew Rutledge via Wikimedia)