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Electricity

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

When the Great London Traveling Circus came to Davenport, Iowa, in 1880, they brought with them a new exhibit. Then, as now, competition forced circuses to keep coming up with surprises. Previous circuses had already brought the usual lions and tigers and bears. Davenporters had even lined up to see a whale floating in a barge of preservative on its way up the Mississippi.

But now, for the first time, they were about to see electricity, safely caged in one of the sideshow wagons. Advance posters had whetted their appetite. "Heaven's own gift to earth," the posters said, and promised that spectators would see "ethereal rays shedding a halo of imperishable glory over all surrounding objects." Other posters talked about the "phosphorescent effulgence which turned the darkest, densest, blackest night into glorious sunlit day."

And there it was. In the wagon, a 35-horsepower engine operated an electrical generator, sending electricity to carbon arc lights just recently invented by Thomas Edison.

The Davenport newspaper, The Democrat, reported that the bright glare "lit up the night with the softness of mid-day," and noted that a single light was equal to 3,000 candle-power, or almost 200 gas lights—a light 75% cheaper to run than gas or coal oil."

Forecasters had made astounding predictions for these electric lights. One of them had predicted that by 1939, electric lights would be in general use, even on city streets.

Apparently, entrepreneurs in the Rock Island area were unable to wait. The following year, electric lights were the feature at a Davenport Turner Society ball. And in 1882, only two years after the circus visit, Rock Island could boast that its entire downtown was lit up by eleven towers, 125 feet high, each with two arc lights.

Davenport installed twenty streetlights in 1883, followed by Moline with fifty streetlights in 1884, which left the Great London Circus in desperate need of new surprises.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.