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Saturday, March 24, 2012

The “Unintended Consequence” of Edison's Creation.

 One hundred and thirty years ago, September of 1882, the lives of 59 New Yorkers in lower Manhattan had drastically changed after operations of the Pearl Street power-generating station officially began. At the age of 35, Thomas Alva Edison, an American inventor, scientist, and businessman, quickly became one of the world’s top prolific inventors after his Pearl Street generating station's electrical power distribution system was switched on. Since then, the world as we know it has become awash in electric light, which officially marked the beginning of the modern era of lighting.

Today, New York City streets, parking lots, billboards, sport fields etc. are all flooded with light creating a bright orange colored layer glowing over the city that is visible from tens of miles away. While business and office building windows remain lit, New York City’s commercial sectors continue to glow throughout the night by powerful lamps. This orange glow floating over the city is visible from an airplane thousands of miles away from the city, not only above New York but also most of the world’s large urban centers. Since the advent of street lighting, electrical technology, and rising global population, this sky glow has been increasing every year. And as a result, the sky has slowly become more polluted by light pollution over time. As discussed in previous chapters, light pollution refers to excessive or disruptive use of artificial light mostly caused by inefficient lighting design and inappropriate fixture installations. People most commonly associate the negative impacts of artificial lighting at night with how it interferes with birds, sea turtles, and insects. However, the effects of light pollution are far more common, widespread, costly, and serious than generally realized. It is often quite difficult to perceive excessive artificial light as a form of pollution, since other than being unnecessary at times, light as a pollutant seems no different from useful light. Considering the many negative externalities of light pollution, useful artificial lighting is distinct from the pollutant, as light pollution generates significant costs including negative impacts on human health, wildlife, astronomy, and wasted energy.

In the past century, the benefits of light at night have been explicit as it has been utilized to address our safety and productivity needs. Very few would argue that the advent of artificial light has not made our lives easier and more pleasant, enabling us to do and enjoy a multitude of tasks and activities that would otherwise be impossible. Streetlights, porch lights, shopping malls, security lighting, night-time work lights, parking lot lights, traffic lights, billboards, store fronts, neon signs etc. have all been either created or modernized using Edison’s brilliant invention as a fundamental basis of development. Since then, artificial light has become a pivot point for evolving human civilization and allowing arts, architecture, and city design to progress around the world. However, while lighting up the Manhattan Island over a century ago, had Thomas Edison expected such great enhancement to the lives of millions of dwellers around the world? Indeed. Had he envisioned today’s magnificent skyline to become one of the most significant symbols of New York City? Possibly. Did he foresee the adverse impacts of such a revolutionary invention on human life, wildlife, and their living environment? Probably not. Could it be considered as an “Unintended Consequence”? Indeed.

Times Square, NYC

...to be continued.

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