Strange Magic


For all the mentions it rates in songs, poems, and novels, moonlight—for many of us, at least—is a seldom-appreciated phenomenon. In cities, and among their sprawl, light pollution washes out the Milky Way. On a clear evening, we can see the moon and stars. But they dim next to the lit squares of skyscraper windows, the unblinking billboards and storefronts, the veins of road snaking across suburbs, the floodlit football fields and parking lots. All that artificial light clouds our perception. It’s ironic, then, that before the advent of electric streetlamps, many U.S. cities sought to illuminate their sidewalks with a kind of proxy celestial body: moon towers.

These imposing structures appeared during the closing act of the nineteenth century—a cheaper and safer alternative to gas and oil lamps. The incandescent bulb was still decades away, but British chemist Sir Humphry Davy had discovered that two carbon electrodes placed close together produced a brilliant white light far brighter and more powerful than any other form illumination. He had created electric lighting. And, in doing so, he’d paved the way for man-made moons. The towers featured not one moon, singular, but several clustered together, as if orbiting a planet in their own private solar system. They threw out harsh, blindingly white light, which, though unsuitable for indoor use, perfectly suited their purpose: to illuminate swathes of the city in one broad, efficient beam. 

San Jose was home to the earliest tower, a 237-foot structure (which, incidentally, made the city the first west of the Rockies to be illuminated by electric light). Through the 1880s and 90s, they spread across the United States, from Albany to New Orleans, and Grand Rapids to Little Rock. Detroit, considered the best-lit city in America, was home to some 122 lighting towers. In fact, it held the distinction of being the only large American city illuminated exclusively by the moon towers. By the 1920s, incandescent lamps had become more common, and cities had taken a more pragmatic approach to lighting the streets—lamps placed closer to the ground, spaced at regular intervals, to achieve a more even (and cost-effective) result. In a matter of decades, the artificial moons had gone from futuristic beacons to outmoded and almost quaint. 

Today, Austin is home to the country’s last remaining moon towers, which are protected by local ordinances and appear on the National Register of Historic Places. Many of the city’s towers were originally purchased from Detroit. One even made a cameo in the 1993 film Dazed and Confused. They are still operational; albeit using mercury vapor lamps instead of the glary arc lamps.

From our twenty-first century vantage point, where lighting can be activated and adjusted with the swipe of a finger or a voice command, it’s difficult to imagine what it would have been like to walk the darkened streets at night. Not dark as in poorly-lit alley, or movie theater, or the benevolent kind of shadow that’s kind to tired faces, but abrupt, near-total darkness. In Patria Mia, Ezra Pound wrote of the allure of New York’s innumerable brightly lit windows: “Squares after squares of flame, set and cut into the Aether. Here is our poetry, for we have pulled down the stars to our will”. This was in 1950, long after the moon towers had become largely obsolete turn-of-the-century souvenirs. The awe described by Pound, however, must have been similar to that felt by the inhabitants of the cities where these great glowing orbs loomed overhead. Long before the stars, it was the moon that had been “pulled down [...] to our will”.

Today, driving a rural highway, or standing on a remote beach at night, we might feel stunned to gaze up and see the sky so clearly, shot through with stars. If you’ve ever gone camping and switched off your flashlight long enough to let your eyes adjust, you’ll have experienced it: the beams we call moonlight, which is, for the most part, sunlight reflected from the moon’s surface, but which we see as silvery and incandescent. The mere fact of this light in the darkness seems holy.