Lights, Please

For someone living today, it is hard to imagine the splendor of seeing electric lights for the first time. When the Grand Court of the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition lit up on June 1, 1898, thousands were treated to their first electrical light experience: arguably the grandest in the world to date.

In the Winter 2012 issue of Nebraska History, Amanda Johnson goes behind the scenes into the logistics of the exposition’s lighting and its importance to the reputation of western states. Eager to demonstrate scientific progress and cultural savvy, expo officials made the bold decision to become the first exposition to light the outdoors of the entire Grand Court. Electricity was the symbol of the future, and World’s Fairs had been using increasing amounts of it. Exposition designers wanted to surpass them all, and on the expo’s opening night, spectators witnessed the full effect of 20,000 incandescent bulbs.

Part of the Grand Court as seen looking northwest at night. NSHS RG2752-01-00.

Planners used lighting to promote the Western States not necessarily for what they were, but the ideal of what they could be. Fairs like this one were intended to demonstrate the potential of the West and the power of building new developments with modern technologies. Still, mounting a display of this magnitude was not without risks. Engineers Henry Rustin and Luther Stieringer became the main catalysts of the expo’s lighting. They argued that the cost of such an undertaking could be in part defrayed by using incandescent lights instead of arc lights, and believed the effect would be worth the effort. Rustin was in charge of camouflaging the wiring: no small feat for 20,000 bulbs.

A bird's eye view of the Grand Court by day. NSHS RG2752AM.

Despite late planning and the incredible scale of the project, the Omaha’s exposition was the first in America to open on its originally scheduled day. The electricity and the exhibit that produced its power were among the fair’s main attractions. Over the five months of the expo, 2.6 million visitors came to Omaha to see it, and the exposition broke financial records by being the first in America to make money every month it was open.

Part of the Grand Court as seen looking southwest at night. NSHS RG2752AM.

For Rustin, the public’s admiration of his work was the most rewarding. “The cheer which the first night crowd gave as the lights gradually came on to full brilliancy, meant more to me than any other occasion in my life. It seemed as though all efforts, hopes, fears and realization were all crowded into one exultant moment.”

The fairy tale scenes had a lasting effect on international perception of the western states. With the electricity displayed at the exposition, Omaha created a spotlight for itself to shout that western states were growing, scientific, cultured, and setting a new standard for the East to follow.

- Joy Carey, Editorial Assistant

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