The Progress of Illumination
by Charles F. Sullivan
No doubt, the earliest illumination that was used in Dayton was burning wood, and there was plenty of down timber to be used in those early days. When going fishing, hunting or anything else, they carried a torch of certain kinds of wood to light them on their way.
I frequently visited some friends who have a large fireplace and they burn wood in it to heat the room and at the same time it gives plenty of light and we enjoy sitting there and talking and do not use electricity unless we have reading or writing to do.
Then came the home made candles made of tallow which could be moved from place to place as there was need, but the light received from it was not enough for the good of the eyes.
Then came the lamp and lantern using kerosene and they were also an improvement but they were smelly things and had to be cleaned and filled every day, so we were ready for a better light when it was found.
In 1848, The Dayton Gas, Light & Coke Co. was incorporated, with S.A. Dickey as president and built there plant at the corner of Water (now Monument Avenue) and the canal (now Patterson Boulevard) and this was a very good location, for they had much heavy material to be used in their plant construction, pipe, machinery and many other things and after the plant was in operation much coal was used.
The railroads did not get into operation for three years after this and even then did not have the confidence of the shippers, so the coal was loaded in barges and floated to Cincinnati and there transferred to canal boat and then brought right to their plant.
It took some time to lay the gas pipes over the city, in fact as long as the city is growing they have to be continually laying more on the new streets, and then service pipes into the residences.
At first they only used coal gas, but as this was full of tar, much trouble occurred at the gas jet, because of the tar stopping there and making the flame one sided or entirely out.
Later “water gas” was mixed with it and that improved it greatly completely avoiding the trouble with the tar. This was made by running live steam over a bed of white hot coke, the oxygen of the steam combining with the coke left [hydrogen] free, to be mixed with the coal gas. After this was installed in the home, all that was necessary was to take a match, turn on the gas and light it for as long as needed, and it was considered a wonderful light and only the well-to-do could afford it.
Up to this time there were no street lights in this city, and if going out some place it was necessary to use a lantern or torch to light you on your way. The first gas lamp posts were hollow cast iron, with the light about 8 feet from the ground, and these were placed first on one side of the street and then upon the other, and about two hundred feet apart and this was don’t first in the business districts and then in the residential districts.
On top of the post was a frame carrying 8 glass which protected the light from wind and weather. At first a man would walk around in the evening with a chart ladder and would climb up and light the gas with a match. Later Paul Watkins, son of Prof. Watkins, teacher in the Central High School, was employed to do this.
He carried a stick with a small lamp upon the top with a perforated top, and at each lamp he would push this lamp up turning on the gas and then on up and lighting the gas, and then go on to the next.
In the morning he would go around turning them off.
The gas made at the plant was stored in a large tank at the works which was always full at night but by morning it was not so full but an even pressure was kept upon it at all times.
About this time, considerable talk was going around about an electric light which made it “as light as day” and I will quote from the Miami Union published in Troy, Ohio, dated 1940 “I quote from the Miami Union of April 11, 1880 which says “Prof. Elroy W. Avery of Cleveland arrived in town one day last week, to endeavor to make arrangements to give an exhibition and lecture upon electric light. An enterprising citizen took hold of the matter and succeeded in raising $25 for which sum the light exhibition was promised and was held upon the public square last night.””
A few years after this I became acquainted with Mr. Jabea Shawhan who has been working with electricity all his life, and from him I got much of the data of this article. In 1881, he was working for Mr. Edwards in the Roberts Building, now used as the new home of the Dayton Museum at the corner of Second and Patterson Boulevard.
The next year the Brush company started experimental work in a two story brick building on East First opposite Madison and exhibited several arc lights in and around the building.
Dr. J. E. Lowes was a practicing physician, and very busy with it, with his office and residence on Fifth street north side, east of Ludlow and he became interested in it, and also interested the directors of the Dayton View Hydraulic Co. in it and they made a contract with the city to furnish quite a good many lights to this city at a price of $66.66 per year. They erected a brick building at the end of the Hydraulic, which is now McKinley park, using water power when available but as the lights must burn every night and either high or low water would reduce the water power, a steam engine was located there to use at any time needed.
When this was installed, my friend Jabea Shawhan was placed in charge of it, and as I was interested in electrical matters, I frequently went over there in the evening and became well acquainted with him. The first evening the lights were used in the summer of 1883, I was in the middle of Main and Second watching for them to come on, and I was in no danger, for Henry Ford did not begin production until just twenty years later.
I saw the first flicker of light and at the same time the lights up and down both streets were burning and I was thrilled with the wonder of it. Each lamp made as much light as a dozen gas lamps and from then on gas for lighting purposes was doomed.
Dr. Lowes became so much interested in it that he soon gave up his practice and gave his whole time to pushing electricity especially lighting. The lamps used at this time were arc lamps, so called because the electricity was compeled to jump from one carbon point to another, and this jump made the light and was in the form of an arc. After burning a while, the carbon points would get too far apart and the arc would be broken, when the current stopped and the points came together by gravity and the connection was made again and immediately the points were pulled apart enough to make an arc again by a magnet. This was going on all the time the lamps were burning and thus the light produced was flickering quite often, making considerable objection to the arc lights. Occasionally the lights did not work but just a bump would start them and it was long before every boy considered it his duty when passing a light that was not burning to give it his attention and make it burn.
This arc also made much heat as well as light and the bugs were attracted to it by the light and the heat would kill them and so each morning the ground was covered with dead bugs under each lamp.
Edison invented the incandescent bulb, using a carbon filament and they were a great improvement for the light was steady and not so glaring, and business men began using them and when once tried they always stayed in use because of the cleanliness of them and also the ease with which they can be controlled. The carbon filaments used lots of electrical energy and did not last long yet they became very popular and more and more calls came to use them.
This extra load and the fact that we had two very dry summers, when there was not enough water in the river to operate the plant, and steam had to be used, made the Lighting Co. buy a new location about 1886 and moved their plant to this location on East Fourth Street east of Jefferson. Here they bought new machinery of the latest kind and doubled the capacity and it seemed that they were good for many years but business increased and they have been continually increasing ever since.
Tungsten was known as a fine metal for the filaments of bulbs, but it seemed to be impossible to draw it so fine that it could be used in this work, but eventually it was done and now they are cheaper to make, use less electricity and last much longer, so are a benefit to all and have made the use of electricity increase very rapidly.
The result of this is that now nearly every house in the entire country have electric lighting and other electric appliances.
The incandescent lights have now superceded the arc lights and many roads in the country are being lighted for night driving.
Dr. Lowes became to main man in the Lighting co. and gave up is practice, using all his time in this work. One evening, as I came home, Father was talking to a man in a buggy at the curb, and as I passed him he called to me and asked me what business I was in and I told him the coal business, and he asked me to give him a bid for the coal at his plant on East Fourth Street.
He gave me to understand that if my figures was near right that he would give me the contract. After he was gone Father told me that he had signed a petition to place a light right in front of your house at the intersection of Second and St. Mary Street.
I never sold the company any coal nor any thing else, but the light was placed there and was there as long as my home was there.
When electricity was first introduced it was direct current at 110 volts and this required a large wire to carry it only a short distance.
This was one reason for building the plant on Fourth Street, also as this was before the day of the auto, it was handy to have a man close by to look after any trouble that might occur.
Later it was discovered that alternating current at high voltage could be carried long distances, with little loss, and at the destination send it through a transformer and reduce it to the proper voltage.
Business increased rapidly and the Fourth Street plant was too small and a large tract of land was bought below the city known as Millers ford and along the N Y C railroad and a large plant was built there about 1916 and machinery was bought to produce alternating current and that required lots of new wiring and transformers placed all over the city and that consumed much time to complete.
Now the Fourth Street station is all removed and all current produced at the Millers Ford station for all of Dayton and many other surrounding towns. A few years back about 1934, the Ohio River was very high and the electric plants at Cincinnati was out of commission and they turned on the wires from here and received help from here as long as help was needed. This station has had to be increased several times and now in addition to the lighting business, they are furnishing the power to run all the street cars and busses in our streets and the most of the power used by the factories of this city, thus keeping the plant busy all 24 hours of the day. A plant at Eaker and Perry and another at Third and Webster make some electricity but their main job is to heat all the center of the city with steam carried through pipes under the streets.
This is controlled by a thermostat and needs no personal attention and the amount of heat used is measured by a water meter, measuring the condensation from the pipes. At all three of these plants there is an enormous pile of coal stored for used when needed and in case of strike or other trouble could run for several weeks upon the present stock of coal. At this time all lights are using bulbs, and arc lights have been discarded. Some years ago the Dayton Gas Light & coke co. were merged and the plant at Monument and canal was discontinued and natural gas was used by all and later the gas Company and the electric light company were merged as the Dayton Power and Light Company and now is a subsidiary of the Columbia Gas Company.
My friend, Mr. Shawhan, is still living upon West Third near Williams Street and has spent his entire life in electric work, starting with the Traction and later with the Shawhan Thresher Company making generators for all kinds of plants all over the United States.
Charles F. Sullivan
Aug. 12, 1941
The Dayton Citizens Electric Company was incorporated January 3, 1906, and received its charter from the city on March 26, 1906, and began operation in May, 1907, from their power house now used by the Dayton Power and Light Company at Third and Webster Streets, and after a few years was taken over by the d. O. & L. Co.
The original cost of artificial gas was $4.50 per thousand.cubic feet, in 1909 it was $.85 per thousand.
Natural gas at the start was $.10 per thousand but with its merging of several times the price has advanced continually until now we pay$.75 per thousand.