The History of Urban Street Lighting


This post is a brief review of the development of street lighting from medieval times to the present, introducing the technologies and characteristics of each and every period. In order to better understand the state of street lighting in our streets today. I had to figure out where it all began and how we evolved to the current situation. To understand the field I had to learn of its roots and so comprehend the problems that developed over the years. I also wanted to know what experiences that street lighting provided over the years and what remains of them today and what was the relationship between street lighting and humans in space during various periods? It should be noted that although the review is carried out according to the period discussed there was always an overlap between the different technologies over time.

Ancient & Medieval Times The initial purpose of street lighting was a function of security. It was used by the Greek and Roman civilizations, utilizing oil lamps, mostly because they provided long lasting and moderate flames. The Romans had a “laternarius”, which was the term for a slave responsible for lighting up the oil lamps in front of their villas. This task was kept up to the Middle-Ages when the “link boys” escorted people from one place to another. Each evening, the medieval community prepared itself for dark. At sunset, people began going indoors, locking all entrances. First the city gates, which had been opened at sunrise, were closed, later the same thing happened in individual houses.


16th Century The first attempts to create permanent street lighting were made in Paris in the sixteenth century. By a parliament decree, during the winter months, a lantern should be hanging out under the level of the first floor windowsills before six o’clock. It was to be placed in such prominent position so that the street received sufficient light. This “navigation lights” gave the city streets structure and order by putting the attention on the volumes, to the borders that created the space. This system also allowed individual houses to be recognizable by night.


17th Century In the late seventeenth century, lanterns were mounted on cables above the streets rather than on the houses, in order to “control the streets”. The diversity of private lanterns was replaced by standard lanterns, consisting of a candle in a glass box. Initially, 2,700 lanterns were installed in Paris. In 1700 there were more than 5,000, and by the second half of the eighteenth century the number had risen to about 8,000.

The lanterns were attached to cables strung across the street so that they hung exactly over the middle of the street, like small suns. To control the precise time at which they should be lit or extinguished lighting schedules were made. These calculated the exact times of sunrise and sunset, as well the hours of moonlight for each month. Early on two lanterns were put in the shorter streets, one at each end. In longer streets an additional lantern was placed in the middle. Over time the variable distance between lanterns was standardized and reduced to every third house. Later the brightness of the lanterns was also improved by using reflectors and changed from candles to oil lantern with several wicks.


End of 17th Century -Oil Street Lighting In 1669 Jan var der Haeyden developed an oil lantern for street lighting, which was first used in Amsterdam. The lanterns were hung in the middle of streets using transverse cables. In open spaces (squares, gardens...) they were hung on hangers or brackets attached to iron. The lanterns were set at 5 meters above ground and were lit and monitored during the night by employees, who were assigned 20 lanterns each. In 1694, in th

e city of London, Edward Heming was granted a licence to hang an oil lamp in front of every tenth house from 6pm to midnight between Michhaelmas and Lady Day. At that time, there already was talk of energy conservation and in 1788, oil guts were replaced by rapeseed oil, which was less expensive, less smelly and provided a whiter flame. Many problems remained. The flow of burning oil caused many accidents; lanterns always shed unpleasant smells and were more likely to extinguish in a gale.