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Wednesday, September 20, 2023

San José, Costa Rica: One of the first cities with electricity

Happy Throwback Thursday! For today’s #TBT, we go way back to the late 19th century.

In 1884, San José, Costa Rica, became one of the first cities in the world to be illuminated with electric lighting. Many claim it was the third city in the world (and the first in Latin America) to be illuminated, though that’s likely incorrect.

San José of the 1880s was quite different than the city we know and love — or hate — today. It was a town illuminated with canfin (kerosene); municipalities hired workers to manually light the streetlights every evening. Not that the cities were all that large: San José was the capital of a province with barely 50,000 inhabitants.

There, in a darkened pasture, two men put a small hydroelectric plant to work. As the energy source, they diverted some pipes that fed a pool destined to cool oxen that arrived at the capital. (No word on how the oxen felt about this development.)

The night of August 9, 1884 was unforgettable for Costa Ricans, as the electrical service was inaugurated in San José at 6:15 p.m. The plant was located in Barrio Aranjuez and its 75 horsepower generated 50 kilowatts to power 25 charcoal lamps.

For the ceremony, President Próspero Fernández came out to his balcony in the Presidential Palace, and curious crowds arrived from Alajuela, Cartago and Heredia to witness the historic moment. From darkness, there was instantaneous light.

“The streets where the poles were placed and the wires were laid were an obligatory pilgrimage site for everyone,” wrote Alberto Quijano in his 1940 book. “Some arrived expressing their doubts because, perhaps, the wires were hollow, like very fine tubes, through which the canfin circulated to the lanterns.”

Whether or not Costa Rica was third in electrifying its capital, the early adoption remains a source of national pride. Costa Rica electrified just two years after lights were turned on in New York City.

Today, Costa Rica’s electric grid remains impressive: It has been almost entirely powered by renewable energy for six-straight years.

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