Christmas trees were still relatively new to most homes in Britain and America during the late 1800s. Since widespread electrification of the world was decades away, candles lit most holiday trees. Along with candles came melted wax, flames and fire. Then in 1882, Edward H. Johnson strung the first electric Christmas tree lights.
Johnson, who worked for the Edison Electric Light Company, hand-wired 80 red, white and blue light bulbs. He wound them around his family’s Christmas tree in New York City. The tree also revolved thanks to a small Edison dynamo at its base.
William Augustus Croffut wrote in December of 1882 in the Detroit Post and Tribune.
The First Electric Christmas Tree lights:
“Last evening I walked over beyond Fifth Avenue and called at the residence of Edward H. Johnson, vice-president of Edison’s electric company. There, at the rear of the beautiful parlors, was a large Christmas tree, presenting a most picturesque and uncanny aspect. It was brilliantly lighted with many colored globes about as large as an English walnut and was turning some six times a minute on a little pine box. There were eighty lights in all encased in these dainty glass eggs, and about equally divided between white, red and blue. As the tree turned, the colors alternated, all the lamps going out and being relit at every revolution. The result was a continuous twinkling of dancing colors, red, white and blue, all evening.
I need not tell you that the scintillating evergreen was a pretty sight – one can hardly imagine anything prettier. The ceiling was crossed obliquely with two wires on which hung 28 more of the tiny lights; and all the lights and the fantastic tree itself with its starry fruit were kept going by the slight electric current brought from the main office on a filmy wire. The tree was kept revolving by a little hidden crank below the floor which was turned by electricity. It was a superb exhibition.”
Despite Croffut’s report, few Americans heard of Johnson’s first electric Christmas lights. The world was still warming up to electrical illumination.
A kind of early hyphenate, Johnson was an engineer, a businessman and a masterful promoter. He had hired Edison in 1871 to consult for the Automatic Telegraph Company. When Edison left to start his own company, Johnson followed. The consummate pitchman, he turned Edison’s ideas into profits. In 1877, Johnson took Edison’s new phonograph on a road trip to stir up excitement.
Late in 1879, Edison unveiled the first practical incandescent light bulb and electric circuit. Like so many inventions, it was the product of decades of work by many people. Frederick de Moleyns of England was granted the first patent for an incandescent lamp in 1841. But it was Edison and his team at Menlo Park in New Jersey who designed a light bulb that could last for 40 continuous hours.
November 1879, Edison filed for a US patent for an electric lamp using “a carbon filament or strip coiled and connected … to platina contact wires.”
After countless tests with a wide range of materials, they landed on a high-resistance carbon-thread filament. A powerful electric generator was necessary to power a large lighting system with multiple bulbs. They later found that a carbonized bamboo filament could last more than 1200 hours.
Edison lit his home with several of the breakthrough bulbs during the Christmas season of 1879. Then on New Year’s Eve, he and his team lit Christie Street in Menlo Park using their new and improved incandescent bulbs and power system.
With his typical flair for publicity, Edison (and possibly Henderson) leaked their latest success to a reporter, swearing him to secrecy. It was the scoop of a career and the reporter broke his promise.
In the last hours of December 31, 1879, a crowd of excited Manhattan socialites dressed for New Year’s Eve boarded the Pennsylvania Railroad special to Menlo Park. There they witnessed history in the strands of Edison’s new light bulbs strung outside his laboratory.
The world was finally warming up to the idea of electrical illumination. During the holiday season of 1884, Henderson tried again. This time, his Electric Christmas Lights sparkled in a New York Times society column titled “In and About The City” on Saturday, December 27, 1884.
A Brilliant Christmas Tree. How an Electrician Amused His Children.
A pretty as well as novel Christmas tree was shown to a few friends by Mr. E. H. Johnson, President of the Edison Company for Electric Lighting, last evening in his residence, No. 139 East Thirty-sixth-street. The tree was lighted by electricity, and children never beheld a brighter tree or one more highly colored than the children of Mr. Johnson when the current was turned and the the tree began to revolve. Mr. Johnson has been experimenting with house lighting by electricity for some time past, and he determined that his children should have a novel Christmas tree.
It stood about six feet high, in an upper room, last evening, and dazzled persons entering the room. There were 120 lights on the tree, with globes of different colors, while the light tinsel work and usual adornment of Christmas trees appeared to their best advantage in illuminating the tree. Mr. Johnson had placed a little Edison dynamo at the foot of the tree, which, by passing a current through from the large dynamo in the cellar of the house, converted it into a motor. By means of this motor the tree was made to revolve with a steady, regular motion. The lights were divided into six sets, one set of which was lighted at a time in front as the tree went round. By a simple devise of breaking and making connection through copper bands around the tree with corresponding buttons, the sets of lights were turned out and on at regular intervals as the tree turned around.
The house is the first in the city in which electric lights were supplied from a current generated in an isolated plant. The dynamo is in the cellar and makes so little noise that it can not be heard on the floor above. A small engine supplies the dynamo, and the steam after running the dynamo is used in heating the house. Mr. Johnson’s experiments have proved most satisfactory in almost every respect and he has promised to make a connection with one or two of his neighbor’s houses that they may also be lighted with electricity.
The Columbian Exposition of 1893 the world was ready for a future in which electricity transformed the night. With the press of a button, President Grover Cleveland electrified the Chicago World’s Fair. The AC power systems developed by Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse ushered in the age of electricity.
Because Edison lost the bid for the world’s fair, he refused to let Tesla and Westinghouse use his patented light bulbs. Not to be defeated, Westinghouse configured a more efficient double-stopper light bulb.
In 1895, President Cleveland commissioned a White House tree illuminated with more than 100 colored Edison bulbs. The electric Christmas lights were so costly that the average family could not afford them. But for the financially fortunate, Christmas tree parties became all the rage. The first electric Christmas lights became the latest status symbol.
For the rest of America, the electric Christmas lighting was not attainable. Then in 1903, General Electric Company came out with a pre-assembled lighting outfit. In some cities, people could rent lights for the season for approximately $1.50.
Because GE was unable to patent the electric Christmas light string, the market eventually opened to anyone who wanted to manufacture the strings.
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