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christmas lights dog

Tech Throwback Thursday: Keeping spirits bright

December 09, 2015
By Alexander Lucas

Thirty-three million evergreen trees will be purchased this season, taken indoors and decorated. That doesn’t even count the 9 million artificial trees that will be purchased, nor the millions of artificial trees being reused and decorated. But how did Christmas lights become part of the tradition, and how have they evolved?

While displaying evergreen trees predates Christianity, the modern Christmas tree does not appear in the records until about 1500. And for nearly as long as there have been Christmas trees, there has been the desire to illuminate them. Many people think the theologian Martin Luther started the tradition, but there is a startling lack of support for this claim.

By the mid-17th century people were beginning to attach candles to trees by melting wax, using string or clipping candleholders to branches. This, not surprisingly, could be quite dangerous as drying-out kindling makes incredibly good fuel for fire.

And then there was light

In 1882 Edward Johnson, vice president of Edison Electric Light Company (EELC), strung 80 lights onto a rotating evergreen tree. This was only three years after the invention of the incandescent bulb and the same that the first electric power station was built in the United States.

But it was not until 1895 that electric lights really began to get public notice. In that year EELC produced and sold the first clear, pear-shaped electric bulbs for Christmas trees. President Grover Cleveland also began to illuminate the White House tree with electric lights that year.

We see evidence four years later that magazines began advertising Christmas light rentals. Lights did not become immediately popular, however, because lighting a tree was prohibitively expensive (around $2,000 for the season in today’s dollars) and required an electrician to install the wiring. Small candles remained quite common for the first few decades of the 20th century despite the danger involved.

Christmas light sales begin to shine

noma lights advert 1958

Christmas lights began to take off in 1925 after the formation of the NOMA Electric Company. NOMA was at first simply a trade association of around 15 similar companies, but they merged into a single company on a proposal of one of the owners, Albert Sadacca. According to legend, Sadacca began making lights with his brothers after seeing a house fire in New York City caused by candles in a Christmas tree, which is at least plausible as this was a common occurrence.

NOMA came to dominate the industry and began to innovate some of the parts of the Christmas light we now take for granted:

  • Intermediate base outfits for outdoor decoration (1928)
  • Bubble lights (1946)        
  • The safety fuse plug (1951)

From 1925 to 1960, NOMA was the industry leader but was ultimately doomed by two factors in the 1960s. By 1965 NOMA was bankrupt and by 1967 the company had all but disappeared. But what could have caused such disruption in the industry?

Bright new days

In 1959 the aluminum Christmas tree was introduced. Since aluminum is very conductive to electricity, stringed light could not be used on it. As the metal tree became popular, light sales dropped. Sadly for NOMA, the aluminum tree craze lasted less than a decade, some say due in part to A Charlie Brown Christmas (now that part makes sense, eh?). The aluminum Christmas tree did, however, inspire some other Christmas tech: the rotating color wheel.

The second major disruptor was the foreign introduction of mini-lights from places like Italy and Japan in the mid 1950s. These were cheaper, had more lights and could keep shining even if some of the individual lamps blew. At the same time, they were also cheaply made and not nearly as safe. When NOMA began to compete with safer version of these lights, their version was significantly more expensive.

Christmas decorations continue to evolve but I think we can all agree it is better to have a safe Christmas without open flames on your dried-out tree. So if you are one of the 33 million (give or take) Americans decorating a live tree this year, or the countless others with artificial trees and house decorations, take a moment to be thankful that decorations are safer than they used to be. But always practice safe habits around those trees, as more than 200 Christmas tree related fires happen each year.

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A self-styled storyteller, Alexander Lucas loves to share his vast knowledge of tech, innovation and design trivia. TEKsystems’ resident video designer is also an avid history buff and writes about technology innovation through time.

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