One of my favorite lights originated in the New York City underground at the turn of the last century. Subway lights epitomize the early industrial style with their strong utilitarian lines and their clever solution to a unique problem – how do you keep a glass shade from shaking loose in an environment full of vibration?
As far as I can tell these lights weren’t used on the subway cars themselves (early photos show only bare bulbs in the subway cars), although the same solution was used for lights on more posh train cars of the era. But the subway platforms provided enough vibration that the more common hand tightened thumb screws we’re accustomed to attaching a shade to a fixture would eventually come undone.
To get around this problem these lights were designed using a system that could hold the glass shade firmly and safely into place without coming undone. A close look at the photo shows a spring inside a circle of metal tabs. The neck of the glass shade fit snugly inside this ring. When screwed onto the hub that held the socket the ring could be tightened down firmly without harming the glass shade and the metal tabs would be held firmly in place then not allowing any room for the shade to shift free.
You can see how these lights were built as much for function as for style. They have a job and look good doing it which is one of the great things about strong industrial design.
The rings on these lights carry several patent dates. What I find interesting here is how they use the full date including the month and day – not just the year as we’re more accustomed to seeing today. This shows a certain amount of pride I guess, but reading them also takes you back to that point in time to imagine how a commute on the brand new NY City Subway in 1911 (the last patent year on this fixture) could have felt. Electricity was still a fairly new phenomenon at that time and was dramatically changing the world – especially in thriving urban areas like turn of the century New York City.
Today we’re lucky to have these lights as working remnants of that era. They’re getting harder to find, but amazingly, their condition is often very good – this is certainly given to their robust design meant to survive the harsh frontier of the New York underground.