Many people know that legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow pushed a button from his New York studio in 1949 to light up a giant Christmas tree in Bellingham.
But I suspect most people would be surprised, as I was, to learn that Thomas Edison pressed a telegraph key in Florida to turn on new streetlights in downtown Bellingham. Edison performed the much-publicized trick on Feb. 11, 1928, his 81st birthday.
About five years earlier, a group of property owners began working on a plan to replace Bellingham's old, five-globe streetlights downtown. In time, the owners formed a "light improvement district" and raised nearly $162,000 to install more than 230 light standards and maintain them for five years. The new, two-globe fixtures sat atop 20-foot-tall standards made of reinforced concrete.
When it came time to set the lights aglow, someone had the bright idea of asking Edison - creator of the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph and hundreds of other inventions - to flip the switch. Bellingham Mayor John Kellogg queried Edison by telegram, and when Edison agreed to participate, The Bellingham Herald trumpeted the news with a double-decker headline.
A Bellingham Chamber of Commerce officer gushed that the new lights and Edison's involvement would "lift Bellingham into the metropolitan sphere."
At the time, Edison lived in Fort Myers, Fla., more than 3,000 miles from Bellingham. Western Union Telegraph Co. and Puget Sound Power & Light Co. worked together to link the two cities by 5,000 miles of telegraph wire, creating what The Herald called the longest electrical circuit in the country.
Early in the day on his birthday, Edison was honored by 4,000 children in a park and presented a huge birthday cake with 81 electric candles. Some news accounts portray Edison pressing the telegraph key on a table outside of his home, but that may have been a "photo op" session staged for the press.
The Herald reported that shortly before 10 p.m., East Coast time, Edison walked into the Western Union office in Fort Myers to press a telegraph key that would - in The Herald's words - leave downtown Bellingham streets "bathed in the greatest effulgence they had ever known."
Two Western Union circuits linked Fort Myers and Bellingham, with one a backup in case the other one had problems. Once Edison pressed the key, an electrical impulse traveled by wire to Washington, D.C., then farther north to Buffalo, N.Y., before flowing through Cleveland, Chicago, Minneapolis and the northern border states to Seattle and, finally, to Bellingham.
In Bellingham, relay devices installed in the Western Union office on Cornwall Avenue sent the juice to Puget's York Street station, which boosted the power on its way to the streetlights. The Herald assured readers there was no hocus pocus in the arrangement.
To celebrate the 7 p.m. lighting, a clock was mounted on a building at the northeast corner of East Holly Street and Railroad Avenue to track the moment. Thousands of residents gathered under a cloudy night sky, and police stopped all traffic near the intersection shortly before the switching hour.
The mayor spoke for 10 minutes, until 6:57 p.m.; a band played, flares burned briefly, then the streetlights grew bright, two seconds ahead of schedule. Fireworks followed, the crowd dispersed a few minutes later and local and visiting officials headed for a banquet at the Hotel Leopold.
Newsreel film crews captured the moment in Bellingham and in Florida. Apparently, no copy of the local footage survives.
The next day, The Herald bannered the front page with another two-deck headline, this one poetic: "Bellingham Becomes a City Without Night / As Distant 'Wizard' Touches Key of Light"
In Fort Myers, according to a news story, Edison described the event to friends as "a lot of poppycock." But, the story continued, "his beaming countenance and his boyish eagerness to strike the key that turned on the new lighting system belied his statement."
After Thomas Edison turned on Bellingham streetlights from Fort Myers, Fla., in 1928, the mayor sent him a telegram of thanks. According to The Bellingham Herald, Edison sent this reply: "I thank you for permitting me to start your lighting system. You Western people are quite sentimental."
In 1960, Betty Curtis of Fort Lauderdale wrote a letter to the Bellingham Chamber of Commerce saying she had been in charge of the Western Union office in Fort Myers where Edison pushed a telegraph key to trigger the streetlights.
She wrote that "Mr. Edison wrote a note for me to send, it was not a telegram so I kept it," and asked if the chamber would like to have the note, which was undated and written in pencil on a Western Union form. Chamber officials were happy to accept it, and the note is now in Whatcom Museum's collection.
The note - which has not been officially confirmed as written by Edison - reads: "I thank you for permitting me to start your station. You Western people are quite sentimental. Edison"
The streetlights turned on by Thomas Edison were praised for giving Bellingham one of the best-illuminated business districts in the country, with light distributed in a "scientifically correct" manner. Nonetheless, downtown got new streetlights in the late 1950s and early '60s. Some of the Edison-era lights were moved to Bellingham's Broadway Park neighborhood, where they remain today.
The Spark Museum of Electrical Invention, 1312 Bay St., has a world-class collection of Thomas Edison items, including incandescent electric lamps from 1879 to 1881, an electric pen from 1876 and a home phonograph from 1908.
Forty-nine seconds of silent film of Edison on his 81st birthday can be viewed at this britishpathe.com webpage.
The spelling of Fort Myers, Fla., was corrected Jan. 28, 2013.
Reach Dean Kahn at 360-715-2291 or firstname.lastname@example.org.