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A photograph of old lightbulbs

Lights, Camera, Action

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They were careless people, Tom and Daisy -- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

F.Scott Fitzgerald


1879 New Year's Eve

Menlo Park, New Jersey.

Inventor Thomas Edison shows off a carbonised cardboard filament which burns slowly in a vacuum; it's the first light bulb. He will improve the telephone and invents the gramophone (the predecessor of vinyl turntables.) And like many businessmen of the time, he accepts the corrupt relationship with politicians. It's alleged he promises some $1000 each in return for favourable legislation. In less than ten years, there are over 130,000 power stations and by 1902 there's 18million light bulbs in use. Factories and shops can for the first time properly operate through the night. Four million women now work in cities, a number that quadruples in just 40 years. They're part of the boom that by 1909 sees 12,000 garments a week made as the first mass produced fashions sweep the nation. Working women favour the shirt waist, a waist hugging blouse with an upper part resembling a man's shirt.


In the 1920s, 800 films are produced a year, double the amount today. 4000 light bulbs light up the estate agent sign announcing there are plots to sell in 'HollywoodLand'. (It's in 1949 that the 'Land' suffix is dropped). Los Angeles is the fastest growing city in the world and it's built on movies, and water. With rainfall as low as 5cms a year and temperatures as high as 57 Celsius, running the water from the mountains via a 375km aqueduct keeps LA alive. But its boom is at the cost of an area called Owen Valley, the 'Switzerland of America'. It's literally sucked dry.


It's been three generations since slavery ended and black southerners migrate north. Between 1915 and 1930, 1.5m move into northern cities, making up one in seven of the population. Old race prejudice and new fears of them competing for jobs build up in the modern cities.

There's no official segregation but it's everywhere. It's a hot Sunday in July. 17 year old Eugene Williams skips church for a swim. He drifts into the white area. A white man throws a stone and kills him. When a policeman arrives, he doesn't arrest the white man responsible. Instead, he arrests an innocent black man. Eight bloody days of rioting follow killing 38. Riots erupt in 24 more cities in what some call 'Red Summer'.

Did you know?

A sad symbol of the American dream shattered during the Great Depression was actress Peg Entwistle. Hoping her previous Broadway success would open doors, she came to Hollywood in 1932. But the phone never rang with a job offer. Broken, she climbed up to the 'Hollywood' sign that had drawn her. She went up a ladder behind the letter 'H'. Standing 50ft tall, she jumped to her death. It's said that the next day, the phone finally rang with work., Thomas Edison claims to have used 6000 materials from the plant world alone in the search for the perfect filament for his light bulb. Rejected materials include fish line, thread, teak and even beard. The solution, carbonised cardboard, burnt for 3000 hours.