Lighting the first bulb

Posted: Sunday, December 12, 2010

December is the month with the Christmas holiday. I enjoy the month for a multitude of reasons.

I remember back in the early 1960s when I was in the Navy dropping anchor in Hong Kong. We had been away from home for a long time and wouldn't be back until spring, so Christmas was going to be spent on the other side of the world. I really hadn't thought out what made Christmas for me until I'd walked around a foreign city and found no one seemed to be celebrating. There were no lights, candy canes, Christmas trees, Santas, Christmas music - nothing. It was very depressing, especially for someone who was a bit homesick.

Later, I walked up on the side of a hill behind the city and could look out over the massive international seaport in front of Hong Kong. As the night came on, I could see the lights of the many ships anchored and I realized that there, on the water, were my Christmas lights that I had been missing; what a beautiful sight.

Where it all began

Those of you who put up electric Christmas lights on your tree and maybe around the outside of your house may not realize when the whole idea of lights came about. I guess everyone knows that Benjamin Franklin's kite experiments in 1752 got the electricity ball rolling. Then in 1800, Alessandro Volta invented the electric battery. It was the first source of direct current (DC). In 1879, Thomas Alva Edison invented the electric light bulb, followed in 1881 with the first electric motor. Then in 1888, Nikola Tesla invented the first practicable alternating current (AC) motor and polyphase power transmission system.

By 1890, there were two big electrical companies competing head-to-head with two separate ideas. Edison had started General Electric and was in favor of DC technology. George Westinghouse had started Westinghouse Electric Company and had purchased Tesla's patents that favored AC technology. It all came to a head in 1892 when Westinghouse won the contract to light the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 at Chicago. This was followed by the building of three massive generators for harnessing the energy of Niagara Falls into electricity.

The year 1893 was a moment in time when the world changed before everyone's eyes. The World's Columbian Exposition was the greatest world fair of the 19th century and became the blueprint for life in modern and postmodern America. From May 1 to Oct. 31, 1893, the exposition was host to 27 million visitors - more than one quarter of the country's population at the time. A majority of the rest of the country experienced it through newspaper accounts, photographic guidebooks and the pictures and stories of friends and family who visited themselves.

Approximately 120,000 incandescent lights were installed at the fair with Edison's 82-foot "Tower of Light," displaying more than 18,000 bulbs all powered by the fair's power plant with 43 steam engines and 127 dynamo generators.

As we moved into the 20th century, the public's demand was for electricity to light and to power almost everything. Christmas trees, with their dangerous candle lights, were slowly phased out and traded in for strings of colored lights. Growing up in the 1940s, I remember old strings of lights my grandparents had in which each light was about two inches in diameter and each bulb seemed to be the same shade of purple/dark red. The strings were not very long and the wires seemed overly heavy compared to what we are able to purchase currently.

Celebrating with food

In the spirit of Christmas, I'd like to share a turn-of-the-century recipe for plum pudding.

Beat together thoroughly 1/2 cup of butter, 1/2 cup of brown sugar and two eggs. Add 1/2 cup of sour milk and 1/2 cup of molasses. To this mixture add 2 cups of fruit (either currants and raisins, equally divided with a few strips of candied orange peel or citron, or currants alone, whichever is preferred). Add 1/2 teaspoon each of ground cinnamon, cloves, allspice and nutmeg, and 1 teaspoon of soda.

Dissolve in a little water, flour enough to make rather a stiff batter, but not quite thick enough to be called cake batter. Pour the mixture in and steam for four hours. This pudding will keep for a fortnight and is excellent when warmed over.

Cream sauce for pudding: Beat to foamy cream 1 1/2 cups of white sugar and 1/2 cup of fresh butter. It will take at least 20 minutes to beat the sugar and butter to the desired foamy state. Add 1 well-beaten egg and flavor to taste. Just before serving, beat into sauce 3 tablespoons of hot water, stirring rapidly to prevent curdling.

I've always heard of plum pudding for Christmas but to tell you the truth, I've never tried it. However, I saw no plums in the recipe, which seemed kind of odd to me.

I hope everyone has a great month of December and a Merry Christmas. Please remember our troops overseas, especially in those places where Christmas isn't observed.

• Jack Marshall is a 32-year Alaska resident who has been in Juneau for 26 years. His parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were pioneers of Oregon and Washington, leaving Alaska for him to discover.

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