Arts & Culture

Let There be Lights

  • By Daniel Wallace
  • Illustration by Daniel Wallace

Let-there-be-light

Edward Hibberd Johnson, known as the Father of Christmas Tree Lights, was a close associate of Thomas Edison — yes, that Thomas Edison, who, as we know, invented the lightbulb and the phonograph. In many ways, he founded the industrialized world we live in today. While Edison determined the course of human history, Edward Johnson figured out ways to electrify a tree.

One wonders — at least this one wonders, me — what it might have been like at a dinner where both of them were present, with Edison going on and on about mass production and electric car batteries, and his friend, Edward Hibberd Johnson, declaiming the difficulty in determining the appropriate distance between a red and a blue bulb, and how challenging it was not to leave a gap of evergreen darkness on one side of the tree without creating a crowded effect on the other. Science is hard.

The disparity between the two 19th-century inventors might have been less egregious if Johnson had been some young protégé Edison hired to sweep up the shop after a long day of changing the world, a lad no more than 15 years old or so, a ragamuffin from a poor, illiterate family whom Edison took off the streets, determined to turn him into a functioning member of society.

But this situation isn’t the case. It isn’t the case at all. Johnson hired Edison. Johnson was Edison’s boss — for about six weeks, during which time Edison made 2,000 experiments as Johnson watched, dumbfounded.

A mere two months after Johnson hired Edison, Edison became Johnson’s boss. Consider how sad it is for a man to lose his job to an apprentice in less time than it takes to grow a potato. Even if he were a genius — and Edison was more than a genius; he was, like Mozart, an advanced, almost alien intelligence — it must be a blow to a man’s already fragile self-esteem and confidence. Dreams die; a life is reassessed. This is when Edward Hibberd Johnson’s work on the electric Christmas tree began in earnest.

Where did such an idea come from? No one gets up in the morning, not even Edward Hibberd Johnson, and decides he wants his tree covered in lights, any more than he wants his dog to wear a hat. To put lights on a tree seems, on the face of it (and even below the face of it, perhaps to the heart of it) absurd, crazy, unheard of.

But it wasn’t unheard of. In the olden days, even before many of the readers of this magazine were born, people used to put candles on their trees — actual candles. Lit candles. Fire. To reiterate: People used to light candles and stick them on the branches of a dead tree, which stood in their living room. What could possibly go wrong? From this angle, Johnson’s ambition doesn’t seem crazy; it seems like the sanest thing to do.

And he did it. In 1882, only one electric Christmas tree existed in the world, and it belonged to Johnson. The hand-wired strands lit up with 80 red, white, and blue bulbs. People walked by the window of his home and looked at the tree and thought, “Wow, there’s a tree with some lights on it.”

Christmas tree lights became commercially available in 1901. Since then, we’ve come a long way. Now anybody with an AC outlet and an extension cord can have Christmas tree lights. They’re everywhere. Each year, thousands parade through McAdenville, aka Christmas Town, USA, to gawk at 400 Christmas trees laden with lights.

So as we make our pilgrimage to the brightest neighborhoods in town — where not only trees are electric, but also entire lawns; where Santa and his sleigh, led by little Rudolph with his red nose, reside on rooftops all season — we need to remember Edward Hibberd Johnson and thank him for all that we see. In his own small way, he changed the world.

Daniel Wallace is a novelist and the director of the creative writing program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Follow him on Twitter, @DHWallace, or visit danielwallace.org for more drawing, writing, and news.

This entry was posted in December 2011, Humor and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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