Why Hawaii Got Electricity Before Most of the Rest of the World

In 1881, Thomas Edison convinced King Kalakaua that electric streetlamps were superior to gas

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In 1881, King David Kalakaua of Hawaii went on a world tour, the first of its kind for a sitting monarch. He circumnavigated the globe, stopping in Asia, India, Egypt, Europe, and the United States. Among other things, he sought to encourage immigration from the Asia-Pacific region, as Hawaii’s dwindling population had created a labor shortage on its sugar plantations. But the king also wanted to introduce the culture of Hawaii to the world, and he was curious about modern science and technology.

When he arrived in Paris in August 1881, the International Exposition of Electricity was just getting under way. The exposition showcased the latest advancements in electrical technology, such as dynamos, batteries, and lighting. The first International Electrical Congress also convened during the exposition, with participants presenting papers, discussing research, and deciding on definitions for the ampere, the volt, the ohm, and other electrical units.

King Kalakaua visited the exposition and was eager to learn more. George Jones [PDF], cofounder of The New York Times, met the king in Vienna and promised an introduction to Thomas Edison. That meeting took place on 25 September 1881 in Edison’s New York City office. According to The Sun (New York), the king and the inventor discussed not only the technicalities of electric lights but also the business of selling power.

As described in The Sun, Hawaii’s attorney general, William N. Armstrong, told Edison that the kingdom had a volcano “that burns a thousand million tons of coal a day.” He jokingly added: “You could put your boilers on top of the volcano and get power enough to supply the country.” Apparently, Edison didn’t get the joke and asked if that was where Hawaii mined its coal. Armstrong replied that in fact Hawaii imported its coal from Australia, but the volcano was their great hope. Some people have since speculated that Armstrong’s remark indicated an early interest in geothermal power, but it was more likely a failed attempt at humor.

In any event, Kalakaua explained to Edison that he was keen to upgrade the kerosene lamps that lit the streets of Honolulu but couldn’t decide between gas and electricity. He wanted to see a full and practical trial of electric lights before deciding. For that, the king had to wait another five years.

On 21 July 1886, Honolulu businessman Charles Otto Berger organized a demonstration of electric lights at Iolani Palace. It drew a crowd of 5,000 spectators and included a Hawaiian band and a military parade.

A few months later, the royal residency and palace grounds were fully illuminated for the king’s birthday, on 16 November 1886. [An original chandelier from the throne room is pictured at top, although these days it uses LED lights.] Electric lighting extended to the streets of Honolulu when Princess Kaiulani threw the switch on 23 March 1888.

Two of the greatest challenges to the electrification of Hawaii were getting equipment to the island nation and establishing an appropriate fuel supply. Machinery for the power plants came from the United States, including a turbine manufactured by Leffel & Co., in Springfield, Ohio, dynamos from the Thomson-Houston Co., in Massachusetts, and piping and valves from Risdon Ironworks, in San Francisco.

As for the second challenge, hydroelectric power seemed a natural choice given Hawaii’s terrain and wet climate. The Nu’uanu stream, about 6 kilometers northeast of the palace, fed the first electric light station that powered Honolulu’s streetlights. But its water flow was uneven, and so the next station to be built was coal fired.

Interestingly, the electrification of Iolani Palace was not the first demonstration of electric lighting in the Hawaiian Islands. That distinction goes to a sugar mill on Maui owned by sugar magnate Claus Spreckels. On 22 September 1881, Spreckels demonstrated electric lights at Mill No. 1 on his plantation. He realized that artificial lighting would allow his workers to process sugar cane around the clock, thus avoiding the expense of any downtime during peak season. King Kalakaua and members of the royal household inspected Spreckels’s mills numerous times. Dowager Queen Emma, the widow of King Kamehameha IV, reportedly exclaimed that the electric lights were like daylight.

At the time, Spreckels held a near monopoly on the sugarcane industry in Hawaii, thanks to his close ties to King Kalakaua. Spreckels had bought political influence by making personal loans to the king and “gifts” to the kingdom. When he was initially establishing his first sugar plantation, for example, Spreckels sought water rights for irrigation, but the Hawaiian cabinet balked. After the businessman made certain monetary donations, however, a new cabinet was installed, and they promptly approved Spreckels’s water rights as well as the construction of a 65-km-long irrigation ditch, the longest in the kingdom at the time.

By 1886, though, Spreckels and the king had fallen out. Kalakaua, looking to diversify his kingdom’s business base, viewed electricity and other new technologies as a way to encourage investment. After the successful display of electric streetlights, the Honolulu company E.O. Hall & Son began installing generators in homes and on sugarcane plantations. By 1890, almost 800 Honolulu residences were enjoying the luxury of electricity, at a time when most people in Europe and the United States still did without. A year later, several officers of E.O. Hall formed the Hawaiian Electric Co. (HECO).

The king didn’t live long enough to see the completion of all that he had set in motion. In 1891, while visiting California, he died of kidney disease. His sister Lili’uokalani succeeded him, but her reign proved brief. Five days before the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown in 1893, in one of her last official acts, the queen approved legislation for the Hawaiian government to provide and regulate the production of electricity in Honolulu. HECO, the only bidder, was granted a 10-year lease to supply power to the people of Honolulu. The provisional Hawaiian government retained control over the original Nu’uanu Electric Power Station to power the streetlights.

On 23 March 2018, the 130th anniversary of the illumination of Honolulu, an IEEE Milestone was dedicated to “the electric lighting of the Kingdom of Hawaii 1886–1888.” Spreckels’s sugar mill on Maui no longer exists, but Iolani Palace is open to the public Monday through Saturday, 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

An abridged version of this article appears in the April 2018 print issue as “Edison and the King.”

Part of a continuing series looking at photographs of historical artifacts that embrace the boundless potential of technology.

About the Author

Allison Marsh is an associate professor of history at the University of South Carolina and codirector of the Ann Johnson Institute for Science, Technology & Society there.

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