The Day Brownouts Were Invented – Lighting Up Manila

19th Century Westinghouse incandescent bulb

Anyone familiar with the Philippines is familiar with blackouts, power outages, or, in Filipino English ‘brownouts’, a term intended, prehaps to soften the blow of sudden darkness. Equally, one becomes familiar with the yelps of joy when lights go back on and people can resume the serious business of karaoke.

Imagine how much more magical it would have been when the first electric lights shone in the streets of Mania, switched on with much pomp and ceremony. Few history books mention that day but an American businessman working with Peabody & Co left a first-hand account that captures the excitement and wonder of the day.

Electricity arrived in Manila in the late 1880s, at least for the very wealthy who could afford private electrical installations. For everyone else, it was coconut oil, kerosene, gas or candles.

If you wanted to take a look at electric lights you could pop over to the wharves at the mouth of the Pasig leading to the Bridge of Spain. There was also an electric light on the bridge to guide vessels after sunset.

Street lighting was provided by kerosene lamps.

On 8 October 1892, the Spanish colonial government gave an exclusive 20-year contract to a private company Compania La Electricista, formed the previous September, headed by Gonzalo Tuason with a paid-capital of 350,000 pesos and a grant of 60,000 pesos from the city of Manila. It was part-owned by Tabacalera. The same owners had a firm providing horse-drawn trams.

A coal-fired alternating current power plant delivering 110-volts to consumers was built at 132 Calle San Sebastian, later renamed Calle Hildago. installation was a multi-national affair involving American-made generators supplied by a Yokohama, Japan,-based US firm using that city as its hub for South-East Asia,, 30 Japanese engineers, American engineers, and a German company.

By the end of the century, La Elecricista had six 300 horsepower engines driving twelve generators producing up to 2,080 volts at 30 amps, sufficient for 30,000 sixteen candlepower lamps over about 50 kilometres of wires. Eight generators produced alternating current for incandescent lamps, and the other four generated DC power for arc lights.

Later two 500 horsepower, also from the American firm in Yokohama, were added which allowed for another 12,000 lamps and the introduction of electrical domestic good such as irons, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, sewing machines and, for the ladies, vibrators. Industrial uses included printing, lithography, and cigarette-making, among others.

There were two sorts of lights installed: incandescents – evacuated glass bulbs with filaments inside which glowed hot when electricity ran through them; and arc lamps, in which electricity was put through carbon rods with a gap between them across which a spark, or arc, would jump to produce light. Incandescents were rather dim and eventually phased out. A June 1895 attempt to introduce incandescent street light to Iloilo failed for the same reason.

Kerosene lamps were still the main lighting in Malate, Ermita and San Francisco de Dilao/Paco until at least the turn of the century. 

Dim lightbulbs remain a tradition in many Philippine homes.

Finally, on 23 January everything was ready for the big switch and Joseph Earle Stevens was there. Like everyone who was anyone, he was invited to the first Royal Exposition of Manila and commemoration of the name day of the nine-year-old king of Spain, Alfonso XIII, who would see the final collapse of the once great empire which he notionally ruled.

Writes Stevens: The Exposition buildings were grouped along the raised ground filled in on the paddy-fields, by the side of the broad avenue that divides our suburb of Malate from that of Ermita, and runs straight back inland from the sea. The architecture is good, the buildings numerous, and with grounds tastefully decorated with plants and fountains, it is, in a way, like a pocket edition of the Chicago Exposition.”

Stevens refers to The Chicago World’ Columbian Exposition of 1893 commemorating the 400th year of the arrival of Columbus. It was a massive affair part of which showed off the uses of electricity and showed the wonders of electric lighting – the first time many Americans had seen it.

The Chicago Exposition has a further link with the Philippines – Daniel H. Burnham, the exposition’s director of works, was the man who drew up the plans for American Colonial Manila and Baguio, where a park is named after him.

Back to Stevens’s account:

“Everybody in town was invited to attend the opening ceremonies by a gorgeously gotten-up invitation, and interesting catalogues of the purpose of the exhibition and its exhibits were issued in both Spanish and English. To be sure, the language in the catalogue translated from the Spanish was often ridiculous, and announcements were made of such exhibits as ” Collections of living animals of laboring class,” and ” tabulated prices of transport terrestrial and sub.marine.”

But all of the elite of Manila were on hand at the ceremonies, from the Archbishop (Bernardino Nozaleda y Villa,O.P) and Governor-General (Ramon Blanco) down to my coachman’s wife, and bands played, flags waved in the fresh breeze, tongues wagged, guns fired, and whistles blew.

General Blanco opened the fair with a well-worded speech on the importance of the Philippines, of the debt that the inhabitants owed to the protection of the mother- country, and of the great future predestined for the Archipelago. And just as the speaker had finished and the closing hours of the day arrived, the new electric lights were turned on for the first time.

Then all Manila, hitherto illuminated by the dull and dangerous petroleum lamps, shone forth under the radiance of several hundred arc-lights and a couple of thousand incandescent ones.

The improvement is tremendous, and the streets, which have always been dim from an excess of real tropical, visible, feelable, darkness, are now respectably illuminated.

The exposition was opened on the name-day of the little King of Spain, and every house in town was requested, if not ordered, to hang out some sort of a flag or decoration. It was said that a fine of $5 would be charged to those who did not garb their shanties in colors of some sort, and all the natives were particular to obey the law. It was indeed instructive, if not pathetic, to see shawls, colored handkerchiefs, red table-cloths, carpets, and even sofa-cushions, hanging out of windows, or on poles from poverty-stricken little nipa huts, and any article with red or yellow in it seemed good enough to answer the purpose.

We, in turn, were also officially requested to show our colors, and I hung out two bath-wraps from our front window, articles which I had picked up on the recent excursion to Mindanao, and which the wild savages there wear down to the river when they go to wash clothes or themselves. But they likewise had enough red and yellow in their composition to fill the bill, and, together with the pieces of red flannel from my photographic dark- room, our windows showed a most prepossessing appearance.

On the Sunday after the King’s name-day, a costly display of fireworks took place off the water, in

front of the Luneta, further to celebrate the occasion. The bombs and rockets were ignited from large floats anchored near the shore, while complicated set- pieces were erected on tall bamboos standing up in the water and bolstered from behind with supports and guy-lines. The exhibition began shortly after dinner, and never had I seen a crowd of such large dimensions before in Manila. There must have been twenty- five thousand people jammed into the near vicinity of the promenade, and a great sea of faces islanded hundreds of traps of all species and genders.

The display was excellent, and both of the large military bands backed it up with good music. One of the set pieces was a royal representation of a full-rigged man-of-war carrying the Spanish flag, and she was shown in the act of utterly annihilating an iron-clad belonging to some indefinite enemy. The reflections in the water doubled the beauty of the scene, and with rockets, bombs, mines, parachutes, going up at the same time, there was little intermission to the excitement. Several rockets came down into the crowd, and one alighted on the back of a pony, causing him to start off on somewhat of a tangent.

Otherwise, there were no disasters, and it was nearly midnight before the great audience scattered in all directions.

The electric lights, of course, are of tremendous interest to the more ignorant natives, and every evening finds groups of the latter gathered around the posts supporting the arc-lamps, looking upward at the sputtering carbon, or examining the bugs which lose their life in attempting to make closer analyses of the artificial suns.”

Manila had electricity for the first time and brownouts, er, blackouts came into being.

Even as the lights went on the rumbles of rebellion were being heard. In expectation of an outbreak of conflict Peabody & Co was handed to a British company and Stevens returned to North America. On 29 August 1896 Andres Bonifacio launched an attack on Manila. General Vicente Fernandez from San Marcelino was tasked with occupying La Electricista and shutting off the power to give the signal for an all-out assault.

Fernandez failed to reach his objective and Bonifacio’s battle plan fell apart.

Now that would have been a blackout worth having. Electric lights made a festive appearance at the other end of the revolution against Spain at a celebration of the Pact of Biak Na Bato.  A vast banquet was held in February, 1898, in the ayuntamiento, a feature of which was a mountain of ice decorated with vines and lit from within by electric lights. 

One thought on “The Day Brownouts Were Invented – Lighting Up Manila

  1. Thanks for this post. I’ve been looking for information on La Electricista as part of my research project and hope you could point to where I could read more about its owners and the plant’s operations.

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