Paris can lay claim to switching on the first electric (arc) street lighting in the world, when in 1877, 16 Jablockoff candles illuminated the Avenue de l’Opera. Joseph Swan demonstrated the first successful incandescent (carbon filament in an evacuated glass bulb) lamp 3 February 1879. Thomas Edison demonstrated a similar lamp in public on 31 December of the same year.
In Tamworth, a small town in the Colony of New South Wales on the other side of the world, George Hooke of ‘The Observer’ and Alderman W Smith, a tanner, in 1881 proposed that the town should install an electric street lighting system.
Unfortunately for these progressive gentlemen, they were just too early with their enthusiasm for the very new, untried technology and in 1882 the borough Council decided to go ahead with a gas street lighting system consisting of 25 gas lanterns.
In the following years, however, Alderman Smith gathered material and information from England and other overseas countries. He was well prepared when the street lighting contract came up for consideration again in 1887. A Council sub-committee was formed and, influenced by Ald. Smith’s research, decided to take a fresh look at determining the best and most economical way to light the streets of Tamworth.
On 18 January in 1888, Mayor W.F. Tribe signed a contract with George Harrison and Alfred Wiffen, representing the English firm Crompton and Company to light the streets of Tamworth with electric lighting; the plant to be operational within 10 months. On 9 November 1888, the new Mayoress Elizabeth Piper switched on a total of 13 1/2 miles (21 1/2 kms) of electric street lighting, the first municipal electric street lighting system to be commissioned anywhere in Australia.
This map shows the location of the lights and route of the wires - Arc Lights are shown as circles and Incandescent Lamps as black squares. This 1988 drawing is based one on published in the Proceedings of the Institute of Engineers London 1891 in an article by Edmund Robert Dymond titled 'Electric Lighting at Tamworth, New South Wales.
It is interesting to observe that a number of street names are duplicated on the map - this is a carryover of the time when Tamworth was in fact two towns: The 'Company' (Australian Agricultural Company or 'Goonoo Goonoo') Town on the south-western side of the Peel River and the larger Government Town on the other side.
As might be expected with any ground-breaking undertaking, the new lighting system experienced some teething problems. Supporters of the superseded gas lighting and the Tamworth Gas and Coke Company, with the support of the other Tamworth newspaper, ‘The News’, took great delight in criticising the new lighting system, referring to it as 'Smith’s Folly'.