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1948 - Rock Island’s new mercury-vapor lights


CD 1964071 E&MP27.034

Electric Lighting

March 10, 1948

A radically new street lighting system that has turned night into day in this thriving mid-western city was being hailed by local police today as a law enforcement tool as important to us as two-way radio.

A new type of mercury-vapor light recently developed by lighting engineers of the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, has been installed throughout the Rock Island business district. Chief of Police William J. Wilkens said today that as far as he is concerned, the system already has paid for itself.

The engineers tells me that the new lights put eight times more light on the street surface than our former lighting system, he declared. But the pay-off as far as I am concerned is that we now have an important new law enforcement tool.

Not only are the downtown streets as bright as day, but my officers now can see clearly down all the alleys. As far as the police are concerned, this new lighting system is as important to us as two-way radio. It was directly responsible for our ability to shoot accurately and kill a bandit recently trapped in our downtown area.

New Type Street Lighting Hailed As Vital Law Enforcement Tool Called Nation’s Best

In support of the police and other city officials, lighting engineers reported that this city of 60,000 on the banks of the Mississippi now can boast of the nation’s best-lighted business district among cities of comparable size.

R.F. Baumgartner, local manager of the Westinghouse Electric Supply Company which delivered the new lights, said the 237 units are the latest achievement of lighting research engineers at the Westinghouse Cleveland, Ohio, laboratories.

These lights, shaped like an over-size football, are the first lights specially designed for use with the powerful 400-watt, 20,000 lumen, mercury lamp, he said. They direct approximately 40 per cent more light onto the street than any former mercury light. One novel feature here is that the city of Rock Island not only has installed them on arterial streets, throughout 37 blocks, but has put a light in the center of every alley in the business section. Now the alleys are brighter than the main streets used to be. The former system of lighting in Rock Island produced one-quarter foot candle illumination at street level. Using about half as much wattage, the new system gives two foot candles between corners and four foot candles at intersections.

The new installation was engineered by Fred L. Carl, Westinghouse lighting engineer of Chicago, in cooperation with the city of Rock Island engineers. Mayor Leads Public Acclaim Perhaps the most enthusiastic in his praise of the city’s new look is Mayor Melvin L. McKay.

When we first considered installing this new type of lighting, he said, many people had serious doubts and talked against it. These people have been coming to me to say they were wrong. To bring that about takes something exceptional.

The public acceptance of this night-time daylight has been overwhelming. So far I have not heard one word of criticism. Delegations from more than a dozen cities in a radius of 600 miles have visited Rock Island. None of them offer any arguments. All they want to know is, ‘how did you swing it?’

It was swung, the mayor explained, by a special assessment on the property owners who apparently are convinced they have their money’s worth.

The new lighting system, the mayor said, heads a civic improvement program that also includes: repaving the entire downtown area; enlarging railroad and river terminal facilities; new parks and a recreational program; off-street parking facilities; new police squad cars, motorcycles and FM two-way radio; and a large private home building program.

Gun Battle Proof of Pudding

Proof of the pudding for the new lighting system, as far as the Rock Island police and newspapermen are concerned, was the recent gun battle between police and a bandit. The outlaw was felled by six bullets from the guns of two police officers after he had held up a local super market.

Eye-witness to the shooting was Herbert E. Wilson, managing editor of the Rock Island Argus, who wrote: I glanced up at a couple of Rock Island’s new mercury-vapor lights. And I said to myself, ‘they’ve paid off already; were it not for the bright illumination, the police never would have been able to have gotten their man. Or to shoot so straight as to avoid hitting pedestrians or motorists.’Police Chief Wilkens said his officers saw a slight movement of a bush that tipped them off to the bandit’s hiding place.

There is no question that with our old street lights, they never could have seen this, or never would have been able to hit the bandit had he fled.

The police report only one difficulty in connection with the new lights, Chief Wilkens added. Motorists keep forgetting to turn on their automobile lights. And whether they need them or not, the law is the law.  

Original Caption by Science Service

National Museum of American History


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