Types of street lights

Updated March 23, 2017

It's interesting to try to imagine what Benjamin Franklin (1706 to 1790) would think about street lights in America today. Franklin designed glass-pane lamps that provided candlelight for the streets in his day. He was instrumental in the paving, cleaning and lighting of public streets. In view of his experiments with electricity in the 1750s, no doubt he might have a comment or two about the gas, electric, incandescent, fluorescent and other types of street lights that would follow.


From around 1816, American cities started to install gas-operated street lights. Baltimore was the first American city to switch to gas street lighting. In 1856, Atlanta Gas Light installed the first gas street light in the city of Atlanta. By 1881, Atlanta had 426 gas lamps on its streets. While gas was a step forward from candlelight, it still required the services of lamp lighters who would light the lamps at dusk. Most of these now vintage street lights had cast iron bases and heads with globes. Gas street lights remain in use in places like Jamaica Plain in Boston, Massachusetts.


The Brush Electric Company of Cleveland, Ohio installed the first electric street light in 1880 in Wabash, Indiana. The project was deemed a success, and the company received the commission to install several more electric street lights. In 1891, the company merged with Edison General Electric Company to become the General Electric Company.

Incandescent & Fluorescent

In the 1930 and 1940s, America welcomed incandescent and fluorescent street lights. Incandescent street lights were initially popular, although it became apparent that they were not the most efficient form of lighting. Incandescent street lights had a shorter lifespan than fluorescent lamps, which required less maintenance and were a more reliable source of light. In recent years, Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) are energy efficient and cost effective alternatives for street lighting.

Mercury Vapor

During the 1950s, the Mercury Vapor street light became widespread throughout the United States. Its light was blue-green at first, until technological advances produced a white light. It was longer lasting than fluorescent street lights and hardy in extreme cold. The drawback was that over time, the Mercury Vapor street light produced diminished light (lumen depreciation) yet continued to use the same amount of wattage. The EPA Act 2005 basically prohibited the manufacture or importation of Mercury Vapor street lights, for environmental reasons.


High Pressure Sodium (HPS) street lights were a product of the 1970s and remain in use. They cast an amber light and are long lasting. An early problem was a "cycle" phenomenon, whereby these lamps could turn off and then turn back on, a problem that has since been resolved with the arrival of non-cycle HPS street lights.


In 2009, Eco Alternative Solutions, LLC offered a 90-day trial of the Integrated Solar Series (ISS) to cities in America. ISS is a solar-powered street light system that is projected to reap both energy and monetary savings. The system utilises Mono Crystalline solar power to collect energy that is stored and converted in sealed, lead acid maintenance free batteries. The process produces approximately eight to 12 hours of street lighting.

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About the Author

Based in Northern California, Maureen Katemopoulos has been a freelance writer for more than 25 years. Her articles on travel, the arts, cuisine and history have appeared in publications such as "Stanislaus Magazine," "Orientations," "The Asia Magazine" and "The Peninsula Group Magazine." She holds a Baccalaureate degree in journalism from Stanford University.