For many years, the street light outside our bedroom window would flash on and off every few minutes for reasons best known to itself. My theory was that the leaves that had grown around the lamp reflected the light back, tricking the sensor into thinking that it was dawn.

Once the light went out, the sensor read the darkness and turned the lamp back on. Over and over. All night.

This is no longer a problem, since the town replaced the old streetlights a year or more ago, with a smart lighting system that is not only better at reading the difference between night and day but also produces better light for a lot less electricity.

However, even my old flashing street light was better than some of Needham’s lighting in the past – and not just because technology has changed.

Through most of the 18th and 19th centuries, there were, of course, no street lights. If you traveled after dark, you either brought a lantern with you or made use of that universal nightlight, the Moon. There was the occasional necessity for night-time lighting – for example when the bridge near Solomon Smith’s farm (Route 16 near Lake Waban) was being repaired, the town paid for a lantern for about 12 weeks to prevent people from falling into the Waban Brook in the dark. Actually, they paid twice, because someone stole the first one. Smith was paid to hang a lantern again about ten years later when the bridge needed further repairs, but this time it was not stolen.

In 1871, Town Meeting turned down a proposal to install gaslights on “certain streets,” but agreed four years later to install 50 gas lamps – 46 of which were in West Needham, and only four in East Needham (two or three of which were gone by the following year). By 1878, West Needham had 179 gas lamps, though there were still very few in East Needham. Before you ask, I have not been able to find an explanation for why the distribution was so inequitable, since the expenditures were town (not private) money.

The situation in East Needham did not get better until after 1883, two years after the split with West Needham/Wellesley. James Mackintosh raised $1320 in private subscriptions to install 88 kerosene street lamps, which the town agreed to maintain, at an annual cost of about $800. By 1893, there were 127 lamps.

The streetlights were converted to electricity in 1893. The first contract was given by the town to the Eliot Falls Electric Company, and stated that the lights were to be lighted from “Sunset to 12:30 a.m., except such nights as there shall be sufficient moonlight unobscured by clouds.” This was known as the “Moonlight Schedule,” and was a common provision in the lighting contracts of many local towns. Why pay to light the streets when the moon would do it for free, as it had since the beginning of time? Ten years later the contract was awarded to the Edison Electric Company in return for higher-candlepower lamps, and free lighting for the Town Hall, Public Library, and High School for five years.

 

By 1924, Needham was still on the Moonlight Schedule – one of the last towns in Massachusetts to still be using it. The Selectmen proposed that the town, “with the same progressive attitude that it assumes in all matters of public interest, abolish this schedule of bygone days and light the streets from sunset to dawn, every night.” Town Meeting agreed to light the lamps every night (even moonlit ones!) from one-half hour after sunset until 1 a.m., and provided funds for additional lamps to be installed in the downtown. The Selectmen also asked for funds to replace the old 32-candlepower lamps with the modern 60-candlepower lamps that other towns were installing – a cost increase of only 10% - but TM turned them down. Needham did finally install the higher-intensity lamps a few years later – again, one of the last towns in Massachusetts to convert.

Unlike its past reluctance to upgrade its lights, Needham’s current new lighting system optimizes light levels, maximizes efficient power use, and minimizes light pollution. And they stay on until dawn. Even so, on a clear night, the full moon is still bright enough to cast midnight shadows in my yard.

Gloria Polizzotti Greis is the Executive Director of the Needham History Center & Museum. For information about programs and upcoming events, see our website at www.needhamhistory.org.