Bright Lights, Big Problems – Sky & telescope article

2006 article

J. Kelly Beatty and Rachel Thessin

Like death and taxes, there’s no denying that outdoor lighting has become an inescapable part of life. Streetlights adorn our roads, billboards stud our freeways, shopping-center parking lots are aglow from dusk to dawn, businesses obsess over late-night security, and convenience stores outdazzle one another to compete for customers. We cheat the night of darkness and, in the process, create light pollution that robs the sky of stars.

Electric streetlights have been with us since the 1880s, and it wasn’t long thereafter that some manufacturers recognized the visual and cost-saving benefits of directing light down, onto the ground. In 1918 the Holophane Glass Co. published the very first roadway-lighting manual. Titled The New Era in Street Lighting, it set forth a number of recommended practices, among them the common-sense notion that “Light above the horizontal must be conserved.” In a later section, the manual notes:

In addition to the two fundamental items of highly efficient lamps and the effective use of the light, as discussed, it is very important to see to it that the street lighting system produces an effect which surrounds the eyes of those using the streets with conditions under which the eye is free to perform its functions properly. Any system which fails in this respect is extravagant — no matter how efficient the lamps nor how efficiently the light may be directed upon the street surfaces or objects. Glare serves seriously to reduce the discerning power of the eye.

Unfortunately, almost no one heeded this unsung champion of good lighting practices. Instead, artificial skyglow became markedly more obvious in the late 20th century with the widespread use of high-intensity fixtures utilizing mercury-vapor and high-pressure-sodium lamps, and with a societal shift that found more people on the streets at night — and at later hours — than ever before. As our nocturnal wanderings increased, so too did the need for ubiquitous nighttime illumination. Then decision-makers began to equate “more light” with “better safety and security,” even though objective proof of such a relationship did not exist.
The entire article can be found at this link.