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Hardcover | $30.00 Short | £24.95 | 296 pp. | 6 x 9 in | 58 b&w illus. | January 2018 | ISBN: 9780262037419
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American Illuminations

Urban Lighting, 1800-1920


Illuminated fêtes and civic celebrations began in Renaissance Italy and spread through the courts of Europe. Their fireworks, torches, lamps, and special effects glorified the monarch, marked the birth of a prince, or celebrated military victory. Nineteenth-century Americans rejected such monarchial pomp and adapted spectacular lighting to their democratic, commercial culture. In American Illuminations, David Nye explains how they experimented with gas and electric light to create illuminated cityscapes far brighter and more dynamic than those of Europe, and how these illuminations became symbols of modernity and the conquest of nature.

Americans used gaslight and electricity in parades, expositions, advertising, elections, and political spectacles. In the 1880s, cities erected powerful arc lights on towers to create artificial moonlight. By the 1890s they adopted more intensive, commercial lighting that defined distinct zones of light and glamorized the city’s White Ways, skyscrapers, bridges, department stores, theaters, and dance halls. Poor and blighted areas disappeared into the shadows. American illuminations also became integral parts of national political campaigns, presidential inaugurations, and victory celebrations after the Spanish-American War and World War I.

About the Author

David E. Nye, who was knighted by the Danish Queen in 2013, is Senior Research Fellow at the Charles Babbage Institute and the History of Science and Technology program at the University of Minnesota and Professor of American Studies at the University of Southern Denmark. His eight other books published by the MIT Press include Electrifying America and When the Lights Went Out: A History of American Blackouts. His awards include the Leonardo da Vinci Medal (2005).


“In this splendidly illustrated and carefully constructed book, David Nye traces the emergence of gas and electrical illuminations in America’s fifteen largest cities (with deft comparative asides to London, Paris, and Berlin). Expanding on his prize-winning Electrifying America, Nye’s focus on the cultural dimensions of ‘energy transitions’ speaks powerfully to our present technocultural moment.”
Thomas J. Misa, author of Leonardo to the Internet: Technology and Culture from the Renaissance to the Present

“David Nye has distinguished himself as the premier interpreter of the history and meaning of key technologies in American life. At the center of this work are his studies of energy and electricity, and American Illuminations is another indispensable contribution to this body of work.”
Robert Friedel, University of Maryland; author of A Culture of Improvement; coauthor of Edison’s Electric Light

“No one writes about the electrified city better than David Nye. In this most recent tour de force, Nye explores the developing drama of urban illumination over more than a century of American history, examining the transition from gas to electricity, directly engaging its social, cultural, and political contexts, and exposing the often contentious and uneven paths emblematic of technological development. The breadth and depth of American Illuminations sheds brilliant light on the way American cities developed both technologically and culturally.”
Molly W. Berger, Instructor Emerita of History, Case Western Reserve University; author of Hotel Dreams