A polymath (Greek, “having learned much,”) sometimes referred to as a Renaissance man, is a cultured man who is knowledgeable, educated or proficient in a wide range of fields.
Hawaiʻi’s last King, Kalākaua, has been referred to as a Renaissance man.
Concerned about the loss of native Hawaiian culture and traditions, Kalākaua encouraged the transcription of Hawaiian oral traditions, and supported the revival of and public performances of the hula.
He advocated a renewed sense of pride in such things as Hawaiian mythology, medicine, chant and hula. Ancient Hawaiians had no written language, but chant and hula served to record such things as genealogy, mythology, history and religion.
He is remembered as the “Merrie Monarch” because he was a patron of culture and arts, and enjoyed socializing and entertaining.
While seeking to revive many elements of Hawaiian culture that were slipping away, the King also promoted the advancement of modern sciences, art and literature.
King Kalākaua has also been described as a monarch with a technical and scientific bent and an insatiable curiosity for modern devices.
Kalākaua became king in 1874. Edison and others were still experimenting with electric lights at that time; Edison’s first patent was filed four years later in 1878.
The first commercial installation of incandescent lamps (at the Mercantile Safe Deposit Company in New York City) happened in the fall of 1880, about six months after the Edison incandescent lamps had been installed on the steamer Columbia.
In Hawaiʻi, the cornerstone for ʻIolani Palace was laid on December 31, 1879. In an era of gas lamps, King Kalākaua was astute enough to recognize the potential of “electricity,” and helped pioneer its practice in the Hawaiian kingdom.
The king had heard and read about this revolutionary new form of energy, but he needed further evidence of its practical application. Kalākaua arranged to meet the inventor of the incandescent lamp, Thomas Edison, in New York in 1881, during his world tour.
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 ʻIolani Palace, on the night of July 26, 1886.
The Pacific Commercial Advertiser described the experience as, “Shortly after 7 o’clock last night, the electricity was turned on and, as soon as darkness decreased, the vicinity of Palace Square was flooded with a soft but brilliant light which turned darkness into day…”
“… by 8 o’clock an immense crowd had gathered. Before 9 o’clock, the Royal Hawaiian Military band commenced playing and the Military Companies soon marched into the square…”
“… a tea party was given under the auspices of the Society for the Education of Hawaiian Children organized by her Royal Highness the Princess Liliʻuokalani and Her Royal Highness, the Princess Likelike. The Palace was brightly illuminated, and the large crowd moving among the trees and tents made a pretty picture.”
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 was lit by electricity.
With the palace lit, the government began exploring ways to a provide power plant to light the streets of Honolulu. They turned to hydroelectric, using the energy of flowing water to drive the turbines of a power plant built in Nuʻuanu Valley.
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 Honolulu Gazette wrote of that moment:
“At 7:30 p.m. the sound of excitement in the streets brought citizens, printers, policemen and all other nocturnal fry rushing outdoors to see what was up. And what they did see was Honolulu lighted by electricity. The long looked for and anxiously expected moment had arrived.”
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.
It’s interesting to note that the first electric lighting was installed in the White House in 1891 – after ʻIolani Palace. (Contrary to urban legend that it also pre-dated the British palace, Buckingham Palace had electricity prior to ʻIolani Palace. It was first installed in the Ball Room in 1883, and between 1883 and 1887 electricity was extended throughout Buckingham Palace.)
Some suggest ʻIolani Palace had telephones before the White House, too. However, the White House had a phone in 1879 (President Rutherford B. Hayes’ telephone number was “1”.) “By the fall of 1881 telephone instruments and electric bells were in place in the Palace.” (The Pacific Commercial, September 24, 1881)
“The first telephone ever used in Honolulu belonged to King Kalakaua. Having been presented to him by the American Bell Telephone Company.” (Daily Bulletin, December 4, 1894)
Kalākaua’s interest in modern astronomy is evidenced by his support for an astronomical expedition to Hawaiʻi in 1874 that came from England to observe a transit of Venus (a passage of Venus in front of the Sun – used to measure an ‘astronomical unit,’ the distance between the Earth and Sun.)
Kalākaua addressed those astronomers in 1874 stating, “It will afford me unfeigned satisfaction if my kingdom can add its quota toward the successful accomplishment of the most important astronomical observation of the present century and assist, however humbly, the enlightened nations of the earth in these costly enterprises…”
Later, in 1881, during his travels to the US, King Kalākaua visited the Lick Observatory in California and was the first to view through its new 12” telescope (which was temporarily set up for that purpose in the unfinished dome.)
It was not long after this that King Kalākaua expressed his interest in having an observatory in Hawaiʻi. Perhaps as a result of the King’s interest, a telescope was purchased from England in 1883 for Punahou School. The five-inch refractor was later installed in a dome constructed above Pauahi Hall on the school’s campus.
In 1891, while ill in bed, King Kalākaua recorded a message on a wax-type phonograph in the Palace Hotel in San Francisco.
According to an August 2, 1936 account in The Honolulu Advertiser, Kalākaua is recorded to say, “Aloha kaua — aloha kaua. Ke hoʻi nei no paha makou ma keia hope aku i Hawaiʻi, i Honolulu. A ilaila oe e haʻi aku ai ʻoe i ka lehulehu i kau mea e lohe ai ianei,” which translates to:
“We greet each other – we greet each other. We will very likely hereafter go to Hawaiʻi, to Honolulu. There you will tell my people what you have heard me say here.”
Kalākaua died in San Francisco a few days later (January 20, 1891.)
King Kalākaua’s desire for technology had an effect on all Hawaiʻi; technology changed the way the people of Hawaiʻi lived. King Kalākaua wanted Hawaiʻi to be seen as a modern place and not an isolated, primitive kingdom.