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Mumbaiwale: Lamp-lighting time. See how the city’s public spaces came to be illuminated

Bombay streetlamps went from gas & kerosene to electric & LED over 200 years

mumbai Updated: Nov 03, 2018 15:53 IST
Rachel Lopez
Rachel Lopez
Hindustan Times
Mumbai,BEST,Parel
The city got streetlamps in (Hindustan Times)

I’ll keep the puns to a minimum. But when it comes to the city’s history of streetlights – coal, gas, kerosene, electricity and finally LED, there’s so much to say that the wordplay flickers to life all by itself. Three books throw the most light on the subject: Pestonji Mahaluxmiwala’s History of the Bombay Electric Supply and Tramways; Cities of Light: Two Centuries of Urban Illumination edited by Sandy Isenstadt, Margaret Maile Petty, Dietrich Neumann; and Upakramachi Aatma Katha by Sainath Pendse. Here’s how the city began to glow:

1833: Bombay’s first gas lamp was installed in a private home. Parsi shipbuilder Ardeshir Cursetjee set up a plant that could convert coal to gas at his house in Mazagaon, generating fuel to light up his rooms. Cursetjee would later also introduce the city to the sewing machine, steam pump-driven irrigation and electro-plating.

1834: The idea of turning private light into public sparked when John Fitzgibbon, the city governor, dropped in at Cursetjee’s home and was wowed by the lights. Surely the city should be as well lit? Plans wouldn’t materialise for another decade.

1842: Meanwhile, another businessman, Framji Cawasji Banaji, (who owned much of present-day Powai at one point) installed gas lamps in his own home (possibly inside the Fort). Locals would flock to see them.

1843: The city finally got streetlamps, but they were fuelled by cheaper kerosene.

1862: The Bombay Gas Company was formed, which would power streetlights (and cover the city with a film of pollution) for more than a century.

1865: A most illuminating year. Arthur Crawford’s appointment as the first municipal commissioner meant big public projects to combat disease, crowding, poor planning and sanitation issues. Gas lamps appeared at Bhendi Bazaar, Esplanade Road (now Mahatma Gandhi Road) and Churchgate Street (now Veer Nariman Road).

1865: Gas lighting was so helpful that several rich locals donated large ornamental lamps at key points in the island city. By year end, there were 220.

1866: The Bombay Gas Company set up its headquarters in Lalbaug on a street that is still called Gas Company Lane. It laid 400 kilometres of pipelines to distribute coal gas to the lamps. But they still had to be manually lit. A municipal gas lamp-lighter would run from lamp to lamp, crisscrossing the streets, using a long pole with a hook at the end to bring a flame in contact with lamp. It was quite a show. During the first few weeks, locals would follow him, transfixed by his movements. By morning, he’d return to extinguish the lights.

1874: Bombay’s gas lamp count stood at 2,415, with Queens Road (today’s M Karve Road) alone accounting for 72 lamps by the following year. By 1876, Mahim and today’s Prabhadevi also got gas lamps. Every month, gas company workers would clean the lamps out, handpumping foul-smelling brown water that collected in the pipes.

1882: The first electric lamps started to appear, and Crawford market became the first public structure to be lit by electricity. It was a short-lived upgrade. The electricity company ran out of money, bringing gas lamps back in a few years.

1897: Dark times! An English editor of the Times of India, visiting the city, noted that the city plunged into darkness at night.

1923: The BMC was buzzed about streetlights. Some 47 major junctions got electric lamps made from tungsten filaments.

1936: Finally a bright response. Another Times of India editor visited and remarked that Bombay was no longer “the city of dreadful night” but now “the most completely electrified city in India”.

1938: Bombay experimented with mercury vapour lamps along the Hornby Vellard Road (Dr Annie Besant Road) in Worli.

1947: A free India! The British-owned Bombay Gas Company was bought over by an Indian firm with interests in jute, tea and engineering, which also bought out the Calcutta Gas Company.

1950: The BEST’s switch from gas to electric lamps was met with public uproar. The issue – gas or electric – was put to vote. Lights of varying fuel, brightness and colour were installed at public squares and ballot boxes below each of them collected public votes. The BEST also conducted awareness drives. Electric lights won.

1960: Bombay Gas Company halted operations in Parel and Lalbaug over air quality concerns. The smell was awful, soot was everywhere, adding to smoke from the mill chimneys.

1981: Bombay Gas Company’s licence was finally cancelled. The city switched to electric lamps and is slowly migrating to LED, solar-powered and energy-efficient sources.

First Published: Nov 02, 2018 23:44 IST