Hawaiian King David Kalakaua was fascinated by technology. In 1881 he traveled to the International Exposition in Paris, where he met Thomas Edison, who had filed a U.S. patent for his light bulb two years earlier. That visit inspired King Kalakaua to bring electricity to Honolulu, starting with his royal residence, Iolani Palace.
Five years later, on 25 November 1886, arc lamps lit up the palace grounds for the first time, to honor the king’s 50th birthday.
Last month the installation was honored with an IEEE Milestone. Administered by the IEEE History Center and supported by donors, the Milestone program recognizes outstanding technical developments around the world.
A ROYAL MAKEOVER
Iolani Palace was the Kingdom of Hawaii’s royal residence for several decades, starting in 1845 with King Kamehameha III. By the time Kalakaua assumed the throne in 1874, the palace had been damaged by termites and was in poor condition.
While visiting Europe early in his reign, the king took note of the continent’s grand palaces. In 1879 he commissioned a new Iolani Palace to be built across the street from the original. It was completed in 1882.
Kalakaua decided to install an electrical system on the palace grounds, including arc lamps, which were brighter than the gas lamps standard at the time. Consisting of a small steam engine and a dynamo—a machine for converting mechanical energy into electricity—the system powered 10 arc lamps, which lit the palace grounds. The lamps and dynamo were made by the Thomson-Houston Co. of Lynn, Mass., and delivered by steamship to Honolulu. The newly formed Honolulu Electric Works installed the system.
On the evening of 25 November 1886, the palace lights were turned on for the first time at the king’s jubilee birthday ball. Hawaiian Electric cites an article published the next day by The Pacific Commercial Advertiser, which described the scene:
Shortly after 7 o’clock last night, the electricity was turned on and, as soon as darkness decreased, the vicinity of Palace Square was flooded with a soft but brilliant light, which turned darkness into day... by 8 o’clock an immense crowd had gathered. Before 9 o’clock, the Royal Hawaiian Military band commenced playing, and the Military Companies soon marched into the square ... a tea party was given under the auspices of the Society for the Education of Hawaiian Children organized by her Royal Highness, the Princess Liliuokalani and Her Royal Highness, the Princess Likelike. The Palace was brightly illuminated, and the large crowd moving among the trees and tents made a pretty picture.
By March 1887, 325 incandescent bulbs were installed at Iolani Palace—75 in the throne room alone—and 150 lights were installed in the nearby Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Lights were installed throughout Honolulu in March 1888, and by 1890, more than 800 homes and businesses in the city had electricity.
The Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown with U.S. support in 1893, but the palace continued to be used as a government building for several decades. Restoration to its original condition began in 1969. The palace is now open to the public.
The electrification was honored on 23 March at Iolani Palace. A plaque, now mounted inside the gift shop, is scheduled to be moved to one of the palace’s historical galleries as part of an exhibit showcasing King Kalakaua’s legacy. The plaque reads:
In November 1886, electric lights illuminated Iolani Palace’s grounds for King Kalakaua’s 50th birthday celebrations. By March 1887, the Palace had 325 incandescent lights installed within its 104 rooms. The king’s action promoted economic development and accelerated implementation of electric lighting of the town of Honolulu on 23 March 1888.
This article was written with assistance from the IEEE History Center, which is partially funded by donations to the IEEE Foundation.