Cruise History

Historical: The first passenger ship with electric lights

Aboard Oasis of the Seas, there is an 11,000 pound carousel adorned with 200 light bulbs, which is around the same number of light bulbs that Thomas Edison installed aboard the American steamer SS Columbia in 1880.


RELATED: Cruise History: Ten creepiest ship wrecks 

RELATED: Historical: History of air-conditioning at sea

SS Columbia was the first passenger ship to use electric light bulbs and the first commercial use of the then-new technology outside of Thomas Edison’s famous New Year’s Eve exhibition at Menlo Park, New Jersey.

SS Columbia was a revolutionary ship for her time. While under construction, Henry Villard, President of the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company that owned the ship, visited Edison’s exhibition on New Year’s Eve and became an instant enthusiast of the new electric light technology. He personally approached Edison about installing a lighting system aboard his new ship, but the iconic American inventor was reluctant, unsure of how the incandescent light bulb, then in its infancy, would perform in a marine environment.

Indeed John Roach himself, the man who owned the shipyard where SS Columbia was being built, expressed strong reservations about the technology, regarding it a fire hazard. In fact, John Roach & Sons Delaware River Iron Ship Building and Engine Works refused to fit the new system to the ship and she was launched in February 1880 without any lights at all, not even oil lamps, and was sailed to New York where Edison’s company installed her revolutionary lighting system in May of that year.

SS Columbia was also the very first passenger ship, and indeed the first ship of any kind, to feature a dynamo electrical generator, a power plant that proved so successful aboard Columbia that it was soon retrofitted to dozens of other passengers ships throughout the world’s ocean liner fleet.

In 1881 Cunard Line, then the leaders on the North Atlantic Southampton to New York run (as they are today), had Edison’s lighting system installed aboard SS Servia. It was the same system on a much greater scale, making Servia the first major ocean liner to feature electric lights for her 480 first class and 750 steerage class passengers. The lights were only fitted in her public rooms and engineering spaces, not all staterooms as aboard SS Columbia, which only carried 382 passengers.


Four dynamos provided the power for the lights aboard SS Columbia.

SS Columbia operated the San Francisco, California to Portland, Oregon route for her entire service career, but because she was launched on the east coast in Chester, Pennsylvania, her maiden voyage was a 17-day trip to San Francisco on the west coast via Cape Horn.

During that time, not one of her incandescent light bulbs gave out, prompting the ship’s chief engineer to send a letter of appreciation to Edison, noting that after 415 hours and 45-minutes of constant use, there’d been no fault. SS Columbia therefore pioneered the use of electric lighting at sea, proving that it could be safely installed and operated.

RELATED: Quantum of the Seas will be the most advanced cruise ship ever built

RELATED: Cruise Industry: 5 predictions for Richard Branson’s Virgin Voyages

Today, your average modern cruise ship features many thousands of light bulbs and strip lights. The cruise ship AIDAstella, for example, was launched in 2013 and carries 2,700 passengers. Within her 253m length, she is fitted with more than 9,000 light bulbs of various shapes and sizes and more than a kilometres of fluorescent lighting. In just over a century, it is amazing the technological leaps that have been made by the industry.


Editor’s note: SS Columbia suffered a tragic end, like so many passenger liners of her day. She sank on July 21st 1907 after colliding with the schooner San Pedro off the coast of California. Of the 251 passengers and crew on-board, 81 were lost.

Categories: Cruise History

Leave a Reply