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Electric Lights to Optics Research: Buffalo, "City of Light"

The year is 1901. From May to November, millions alighted on Buffalo to explore the Pan-American Exposition, the world’s fair that showcased technological advancements. Well-suited to play host city, Buffalo was at that time the eighth largest city in the United States (with a population of approximately 350,000) and had excellent access to train lines, making a visit to town viable for many visitors. A major feature of the Exposition was electric lighting, which utilized hydroelectric power, courtesy of nearby Niagara Falls. Footage of the Exposition by night, created by Thomas A. Edison, Inc., can be accessed via the Library of Congress website (also below), which reveals a spectacle of light, including a special effects moving beam. Of particular note was the “Electric Tower” designed by John Galen Howard. At the top was placed the “Goddess of Light,” a statue that was lit by more than 40,000 lights. Walter Hines Page, an editor of “The Atlantic Monthly,” described the structure in writing:

“The Tower is a great center of brilliancy. There are perhaps not a half-million electric bulbs, but there are hundreds and thousands of them and you are willing to believe that there may be millions. It shines like diamonds, a transparent, soft structure of sunlight. There it stands, glowing with the lights of many thousand bulbs flashing its image in the basin at its feet, showing its gleaming dome to the people in neighboring cities. Its beauty is transcendent.”

Buffalo has been known as “The City of Light” since that Pan-American Exposition at the turn of the 20th century. According to “New York Yesterday and Today” by Meg Schneider, Buffalo was the first city in the United States to have electric street lights, due to its proximity to the hydraulic resource of Niagara Falls, 20 miles to the North.

Light continues to play a role in the city today. From science and tourism to civic work and literature, Buffalo continues to do its name justice by utilizing light. At the University of Buffalo, researchers have made great advances in optics research, the study of light. According to UB Reporter, in 2011, the Department of Defense awarded three New York professors — Natalia Litchinister, a UB associate professor of electrical engineering, Alexander N. Cartwright, a UB professor of electrical engineering and Grover Swartzlander, a physics professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology — a $1.4 million grant “to develop new technology designed to process greater amounts of information quicker than traditional microchips.” The team of researchers and graduate students are working to bring together two branches of modern optics: metamaterials — which develops properties of light, sound and mechanics that are not found in nature, such as high-resolution devices, sensors, and, potentially, cloaking devices — with singular optics, which centers on manipulating light waves.

Starting late 2014, Buffalo’s Outer Harbor will feature a year-round narrative kinetic light shown that’s sure to boost tourism. Approximately 14 grain elevators will be lit up, as well as the Ohio Street Bridge and the underside of the Skyway. At selected times, a 45-minute multimedia show will tell a Buffalo-themed narrative. According to The Buffalo News, The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation has been organizing the project for some time, based upon an Aurora Borealis Project in Quebec City. The vote to approve the project was unanimous. It’s expected to cost $5 million, and the lighting design and engineering services come from Ambiant Design Productions of Montreal and Foit-Albert Associates of Buffalo. This month marked the sixth annual “City of Light” event created by the grassroots nonprofit organization B-Team, which works to promote civic pride. During “City of Light,” B-Team decorates the streets of a neighborhood with holiday lights and then holds a winter carnival. In previous years, B-Team has decorated homes and businesses with 50,000 lights alongside local residential lights and has fed 300 people at the carnival, which have been held in community centers of the decorated neighborhoods. This year, the event took place Dec. 7 on Buffalo’s West Side. Visitors can make donations by visiting B-Team’s website. A book on New York States of Mind’s Best New York Reads list is City of Light by Lauren Belfer, published by The Dial Press. This historical mystery novel is set during the Pan-American Exposition, and it follows Louisa Barrett, the headmistress of Buffalo’s most prestigious school, as she discovers a murder tied to the power plant at Niagara Falls. Ms. Belfer, the author, was born in Rochester and grew up in Buffalo, and now she resides in New York City. City of Light so captures the spirit of Buffalo during the turn of the 20th century that there was a three-hour “City of Light Trolley Tour” during October co-sponsored by Preservation Buffalo Niagara and Forest Lawn Cemetery that highlights specific areas of the city that appear in the novel. Swing by Talking Leaves, Buffalo’s oldest independent bookstore, to get a copy.

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