Birthdays and the Blackpool Lights: Why shouldn't I switch them on?

blackpool lights elp

I came into this job 13 months ago knowing I had a lot to learn about the electric power grid. I didn’t really know my T from my D and wondered if a microgrid could heat my coffee.

Not really, but I knew how important it was to learn the history of the industry. What I didn’t realize was how important my existence was to the industry.  Well not really about that, either, but bear with me.

My birthday is September 19, 1962. On that date 83 years earlier, the Blackpool Illuminations were first switched on in that seaside resort in Lancashire, England. The “artificial sunshine” was a humble little lights festival with only eight arc lamps. Yet it predated Thomas Edison’s patent of the electric light bulb by another year. And the Blackpool lights have been running almost continuously, save for breaks during a couple of world wars.

The Illuminations has become such a big deal that it now starts at the beginning of the month (don’t let my birthday slow you down!) and has featured various celebrities to switch on the festival.  Last year it was director Tim Burton and this year it is actress Dame Barbra Windsor. Prior switchers have ranged from politician Lord Derby to sex symbol Jayne Mansfield to the BeeGees and one of the Spice Girls (Ginger, I think).

So this year’s slot has already come and gone, but maybe they will think a little outside the fusebox for their 2017 switcher. I’ll turn 55, a number which has some symmetry and brings no small amount of consternation to its bearer.  But it’ll tie September 19 together nicely for the both of us.

The Blackpool Illuminations, of course, are bigger than me. The way I go around the house turning lights off that my family leaves on, however, you’d think I’d get a conservation medal from the EPA or something. But Blackpool is all about turning the lights on, and history speaks well of the effort.

Prior to 1879, the resort city’s streets were lit by gas lamps. During that year, local leaders allocated £5,000 (worth a couple of hundred thousand dollars today, I suppose) to experiment with electric lighting. They found their man in German inventor Werner Von Siemens, fresh from developing dynamos and not far from building the world’s first electric elevator a year later.

“On the 19th September 1879 Dr.  Siemens' eight dynamo-electric machines powered by 16 Robey engines were used to power eight arc lamps on the promenade spaced 320 yards apart, emitting the equivalent of 48,000 candles of light in total,” reads a history on the event’s official website.  “The event had been advertised nationally and between 70,000 and 100,000 visitors travelled from all over Britain to witness the event.”

And thus the Blackpool Illuminations were born. The length of lights has expanded from eight arc lamps to six miles long. Millions will travel many times farther than that to come see them.

And to think it all started on a September 19. That’s also the same date when the first emoticon was posted. And me.  

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