The first discoveries of electricity were made back in ancient Greece. Greek philosophers discovered that when amber is rubbed against cloth, lightweight objects will stick to it. This is the basis of static electricity.
The credit for generating electric current on a practical scale goes to the English scientist, Michael Faraday. In 1831, Faraday found the solution that electricity could be produced through magnetism by motion.
Using electricity as a power source, in the period from 1878 to 1880, Thomas Edison and his associates worked on at least three thousand different theories to develop an efficient incandescent lamp. Incandescent lamps make light by using electricity to heat a thin strip of material (called a filament) until it gets hot enough to glow.
Finally, Edison decided to try a carbonized cotton thread filament. When voltage was applied to the completed bulb, it began to radiate a soft orange glow. Just about fifteen hours later, the filament finally burned out; Patent number 223,898 was given to Edison’s electric lamp.
In 1881, the Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair) was held in Paris; it was the first International Exposition of Electricity. The major events associated with the Fair included Thomas Edison’s electric lights, electrical distribution and Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone.
Shortly thereafter, the Brush Electric Light Company established New York City’s first electric company. A small generator powered street lights on lower Broadway.
In an era of gas lamps, King Kalākaua recognized the potential of “electricity,” and helped pioneer its introduction in the Hawaiian kingdom. The King arranged to meet the inventor of the incandescent lamp, Thomas Edison, in New York in 1881, during the course of a world tour.
During the King’s visit to NYC, the New-York Tribune (September 25, 1881) wrote an article about the King: “One of the sights that pleased him most was the Paris Electrical Exhibition. We spent some time there.”
“Kalakaua is going to introduce the electric light in his own kingdom; and he examined the different lamps on that account with the greatest interest. The life in Paris entertained him very much; they turned night into day there.”
“The visit, indeed, was not altogether one of curiosity, nor was the Edison light wholly unfamiliar to his Majesty, who had already observed it in operation in Paris.”
“It has for several years been one of the dreams of his Majesty, in the development of the civilization toward which his people are rapidly struggling to introduce the electric light in Honolulu and light the city with it, in preference to gas.”
“He has, however, patiently awaited the perfection of some one of the many systems before the public and will probably on his return reduce the purpose to practice.” (New York Times, September 26, 1881)
“He seemed particularly interested in the statement that after steam-power had been transformed into electricity and carried to a great distance in that form it could again be converted into motive power by means of an electrical motor …”
“… and sold to customers for the purpose of running elevators or operating hoist-ways. His eyes lighted when he was told that one of the most profitable departments of the business of the company would be the sale of power to manufactories and business firms …”
“… in quantities as small as a single horse power, costing, under circumstances of ordinary use, not more than 8 cents a day.” (New York Times, September 26, 1881)
Five years after Kalākaua and Edison met, Charles Otto Berger, a Honolulu-based insurance executive with mainland connections, organized a demonstration of “electric light” at the king’s residence, ʻIolani Palace, on the night of July 26, 1886.
To commemorate the occasion, a tea party was organized by Her Royal Highness the Princess Liliʻuokalani and Her Royal Highness the Princess Likelike. The Royal Hawaiian Military Band played music and military companies marched in the palace square. An immense crowd gathered to see and enjoy the brightly lit palace that night.
Shortly after this event, David Bowers Smith, a North Carolinian businessman living in Hawaiʻi, persuaded Kalākaua to install an electrical system on the palace grounds. The plant consisted of a small steam engine and a dynamo for incandescent lamps. On November 16, 1886 – Kalākaua’s birthday – ʻIolani Palace became the world’s first royal residence to be lit by electricity.
With the palace lit, the government began exploring ways to establish its own power plant to light the streets of Honolulu. A decision was made to use the energy of flowing water to drive the turbines of a power plant built in Nu‘uanu Valley.
Accordingly, “a head of from 300 to 330 feet could be obtained at the elevation known as Queen Emma lot in Nu‘uanu Valley (Hānaiakamālama,) this giving about 130 horse power.”
The new dynamo station was located instead “opposite the Wood estate, it having been found that the Queen Emma lot could not be secured.” The contract was awarded to Peter High, ground was broken November 23, 1887 and the government accepted the building on January 21, 1888.
Water was taken in a pipeline running past Kaniakapūpū, then fed a hydroelectric plant in an area known as “Reservoir #1,” near Oʻahu County Club. Power lines were strung on the existing Mutual Telephone Co. poles in the area, down to downtown Honolulu.
On Friday, March 23, 1888, Princess Kaʻiulani, the king’s niece, threw the switch that illuminated the town’s streets for the first time – the first of Honolulu City Lights.
The Minister of the Interior report to the Legislative Assembly in the 1888 noted, “We have at present one twelve-light machine, carrying twelve lights with five miles of wire, and using nine horse power; also one fifty-light machine, carrying forty-six lamps on fifteen miles of wire, using forty-two horse power, making a total of fifty-eight lights now in use in the city.”
A year later, the first of a handful of residences and business had electricity. By 1890, this luxury had been extended to 797 of Honolulu’s homes.