Silicon Valley History Online  

Electric Light Tower

10th or 11th Grade Social Studies

Urban Development of Cities: Electricity

San Jose Electric Light Tower

The students will explore the development of urban lighting at the turn of the century
through an examination of the San Jose Light Tower.

8.12, 10.3, 11.5

Two Days.

Interactive Slideshow

SVHO images:
“Electric Light Tower under Construction, 1881”
“Electric Light Tower, 1907”
“Electric Light Tower, 1910”
“Electric Light Tower, 1910 ”
“Electric Light Tower, 1912”
“Electric Light Tower, 1915”
“Electric Light Tower after Collapse, 1915”


Day One

  1. Introduce the unit by bringing in a light bulb and ask who discovered electricity? Students will probably say Benjamin Franklin. However, Ben Franklin did nothing with his discovery. In fact many eighteenth-century scientists knew how to make electricity from friction but it was not useful because you could not move it. Also, the ancient Greeks knew about creating static electricity through friction, as “electron” is a Greek word. In 1800, an Italian physicist, Alessandro Volta learned to store electricity in batteries of zinc and silver. In 1836, Samuel Morse, using an electrical battery and a copper wire, sent the first electrical message by wire. It was not until Thomas Edison, in 1865, patented the incandescent lamp (the light bulb you are holdng) that the practical aspects of electricity were realized.

  2. Explain that with the Industrial Revolution there was a rise in population, and increase in technology. Urban centers around the world struggled with developing an effective, safe, and reliable source of energy for the bulging populations and fledgling businesses. Public lighting had many advantages for a community such as increasing business hours, facilitating transportation, and discouraging crime.

  3. Show the SVHO picture of downtown San Jose. Ask the students to identify examples of Industrial Revolution in the picture. Transition the discussion around electricity (Are there street lamps? Are they needed?) Ask for suggestions from the students on potential solutions to street lamps.

  4. Show the SVHO pictures of the Light Tower (one with Christmas lights, one with advertisement, one from a distance, one as it was destroyed). Have students identify positive uses for the Tower and negative aspects to the Tower from each picture. Record these in their notebook under two columns.

  5. Assignment: Assign groups of students to create the front page of a newspaper reporting on the Lighting ceremony of the Electric Light Tower on December 31, 1881. The newspsper must have the following:

  6. Give Groups time to assign newspaper responsibilities. Instruct them to make assignments for homework.

  7. Homework: Work on specific assignment.

Day Two:

  1. Work in class on the project. Remind students to review the SVHO pictures as they may give small clues to help in creating the articles. Be sure students are effectively pointing out the benefits and disadvantages of the Light Tower.

  2. Present the newspapers in class the next day.

Alternative Procedure for Advanced Students

  1. Students can peer review the newspapers choosing a Pulitzer Prize for best articles and cartoon.

  2. To give students a brief overview of urban lighting effort, see Click on “19th Century Electric Lamps.”

  3. Discuss with the students the perspectives that were included in the newspaper articles. List on the board, the reasons for supporting the Tower and reasons for disliking the Tower. Help the students determine the most valid arguments.

Debrief: The Light Tower stood as a monument of the cooperation and determination of a young city to erect a unique and pioneering electric tower. This considerable civic effort overcame construction challenges to last almost four decades. Although controversial until it was destroyed, the Light Tower left a lasting legacy on the community of San Jose.


  1. “San Jose Electric Tower (Replica) Dedication Program.” Anonymous, 1977 at San Jose Historical Museum.
  2. Clyde Arbuckle’s History of San Jose (1985), Clyde Arbuckle
  3. “Our Electric Light Tower Belle” (February 1977,Vol 17, No. 1), The Trailblazer, Henry Calloway.
  4. History of Santa Clara County (1922), Eugene T. Sawyer