Electric Bathing

The story of artificial sun

Eric Rogers
Mar 4, 2016 · 11 min read

The vacation can be brought home, and in fact has a long history of being brought home to more temperate places, far from the equator. This piece explores the colorful history of using tools and technology to create artificial tropical climates.

The sediment of history obscures many things, but perhaps nothing fades more completely than the desires of generations past. Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project is a good example of an attempt to excavate the long-lost desires of generations past, at a pivotal time in Parisian history, and perhaps we need many more of these. The things that people dreamt and fantasized about; the ways in which certain visions of the past, present and future were operative in their behaviors; the meaning that these gave to their everyday behaviors; the discovery of these things takes a special kind of archeology.

The Victorian Era witnessed the mass importation of tropical plants to the dreary climate of England, where these adorned the newly-possible light-filled interiors. The common narrative is that the urban Victorians, dwelling in their sooty, industrialized cities, longed for the nature that the factories and overcrowding were displacing, replicating the verdant countryside in the bay windows and parlors of their ornate homes. Yet this is perhaps only a partial truth. While there may have been a certain nostalgia for nature, the actual type of nature being brought indoors tells a different story. The Victorians, by and large, created tropical gardens, replete with ferns and palms and abutilons.

These gardens would have been utterly impossible to create or maintain a generation earlier, since the heating of whole houses to temperatures that would sustain these kinds of plants year-round was very uncommon before the mid-1850’s, when Stephen Gold introduced the radiator, which revolutionized steam heating. Moreover, architecture was introducing new and innovative forms, like the bay window (impossible prior to industrial glass production) and the sun porch (to say nothing of the greenhouse and the solarium). The sun porch and the bay window, and the many tropical plants that these often contained, were utterly modern inventions, and expressions of urban, industrial life. In this sense, the Victorians were engaging in a uniquely urban and modern phenomenon with their tropical gardens and newly-pioneered light-filled interiors. While they may seem nostalgic to us today, the Victorian indoor tropical garden probably felt more like science fiction to a person of that time: the exotic interior gardens of the Victorians, in short, were a mark of progress, not nostalgia.

What the Victorian interior introduced, with its flamboyancy and its highly decorative furnishings and plantings, was both a hedonism and an acquisitiveness that were intricately intertwined. The accumulating wealth that was concentrating in the hands of a growing class of elites, paired with the imperialist domination and exploitation of tropical regions on the part of the British Empire made new standards of living possible for those fortunate enough to live well in England at the time. These indoor gardens were, at the time, a kind of permissible hedonistic avenue of enjoyment in the Victorian age, bringing sun and warmth inside to tickle the otherwise repressed occupants of the nineteenth and early twentieth-century interior. The story of the threat that the Victorian home posed to the asceticism of religion is a fascinating one, and is told quite compellingly by Deborah Cohen, in her book Household Gods.

In any case, a certain creative fertility tends to vanish with the mass adoption and commercialization of technologies. Centralized heating, for a generation that grew up with it, would no longer be evocative of the tropics or experienced as a kind of science fiction. As time rolled on, the awareness of warm, light-filled interiors as something exotic and evocative of distant climates began to fade. Yet a new horizon was shaping the desires of the Late Victorians, and that horizon was electrification.

The first public power plant was opened in 1881 in Godalming, Surrey, U.K. The next year, Edison opened the Pearl Street Station power plant, which used steam engines to generate electricity for about 85 customers. By the end of the decade, over 1,000 power stations had been opened, and by the turn of the century, that figure had more than tripled. The beginning of the twentieth century witnessed massive campaigns to electrify homes, both in Europe and in the United States. Importantly, home electricity was almost exclusively used for lighting, and electricity was being advocated and introduced explicitly for this purpose. Inventors slowly introduced electrical appliances that did more than illuminate in the early decades of electrification, but these would screw directly into light sockets or else need to be splice directly into the source wire. By the 1930’s, however, early electrical appliances, enabled by the invention of the grounded electrical outlet, began to make their mass debut.

In any case, the widening uses for electricity yielded a great variety of inventions, some of which — such as the refrigerator — were nearly universally adopted, whereas others made only partial or limited emergences, before sinking into historical obscurity. What interests us here are the bizarre (yet also somehow reasonable) hedonistic uses of electricity for leisure heating and the desires stirred by the newfound ability to create artificial climates.

The architect and author Rem Koolhaas examines how Coney Island operated as a laboratory for unique expressions of technology-enabled urban desires in the early part of the twentieth century. One of these experiments was what Koolhaas calls “electric bathing”. With the advent of electric lighting, the beaches of Coney Island could be illuminated around the clock, with complete deference to the naturally-imposed limitations of the day cycle. Electricity “made it possible to create a second daytime — intense electric lights were placed at regular intervals along the surfline, so that the sea could be enjoyed in a truly Metropolitan shift system. Those unable to reach the water in the day, were given a 12-hour extension.” (Rem Koolhaas, “Life in the Metropolis, or the Culture of Congestion”, in “OMA”Architectural Design 47, no. 5 (1977) pg. 320.)

The dazzling lights of Coney Island

One small hotel in Bournemouth, Dorset, England, took full advantage of electricity in a similar capacity, and did what very few people were doing at the time: for the purposes of sunbathing, the hotel used electric lighting as a substitute for sunshine indoors. Opened around the time of World War I, the Tollard Royal Hotel was located in a beach town on the Southern coast of England. Yet the weather in Bournemouth, though mild for the British Isles, was still considerably dreary, and typically overcast (significantly more overcast and even colder than Seattle), with only 1,766 sunshine hours on average per year. To combat this, the hotel brought the sunshine indoors, boasting “Sunshine — Day and Night” on a promotional spread. The advertisement continues: “During dull days and every evening The Solarium is flooded with our Synthetic Sunshine.” The hotel imported a massive quantity of sand into the solarium, covering the floor with it, replicating the beach setting indoors. Pictures of the hotel, taken in 1930, show two young women enjoying desserts in their bathing suits by a window, looking out over a gray and foggy coastline. Another picture shows these same two women accompanied by three others laying in the sand holding parasols, basking in the artificial sunlight.

The story of electric bathing is not one of continuity, however. From the limited amount of archival material available, there is no evidence that the Coney Island illuminators and the Tollard hoteliers were in communication. Of course, there was no World Wide Web to blog about the creation of electric sun lounges, and it’s very likely that the instances in which the inspiration and initiative coincided in individuals to create an artificial solar experience, that the idea felt very original. In any case, the mole of inspiration would poke its head out in random places and at random times, and what follows are some of the moments when it did.

Tanning appliances and applications began to show up more frequently, particularly in the United States, after World War II.

A 1946 article in Popular Science examined the potential health benefits of artificial sunlight, exclaiming that “[a]ll the rays of sunshine at the seashore now can be delivered almost anywhere.”

The article examined the spectrum of light produced by the sun, which spanned from invisible ultra-violet light — responsible for tanning and sunburns — through the visible spectrum, to invisible infra-red light — the spectrum responsible for radiant heat. Corresponding to each of these parts of the spectrum, which fall on what the writers called the “mountain of light,” the article displayed a diagram placing different kinds of electric light fixtures on a graph of the distribution of solar radiation, with their location on the graph corresponding to the spectrum of light that they gave off.

At the time, according to the article, General Electric was conducting tests on what they called a “sunshine ceiling,” involving “423 lamps, of six types,” and made for use by “hospitals or institutions requiring constant sunshine for plant research.” The ceiling, which used “thirty 150-watt projector lamps,” “two hundred and thirty-four 300-watt reflector-type lamps,” “six 3,000-watt mercury lamps,” “thirty-three 275-watt sunlamps,” “sixty 60-watt incandescent lamps,” and “sixty 100-watt white fluorescent lamps”—(a total of 111,375 watts!) — apparently produced so much heat that a water-cooled glass screen — “running a stream of 1,000 gallons of water per hour over the skylight” — was needed to shield the occupants of any room with such a ceiling from extreme discomfort.

As incredibly inefficient and over-the-top as this pseudo-solar installation was, it was touted as (re)producing a climate in which humans would be optimized. “These lamps will make it easier to produce the levels of illumination that science has shown to be ideal for maximum human efficiency, safety, comfort, and welfare,” commented a Dr. Luckiesh in the Popular Science article. The happiness of the occupants of the illustrated ashtray-equipped, ‘sunny’ hospital ward positively radiates from the article.

Whatever the health effects for the ill and infirmed, the fulfilled desire to have 24/7/356 summer — for anyone — appears to be the real story. The article concludes: “’summer sunshine’ can be readily obtained wherever needed with the lamps now available.” (Popular Science, January, 1946. pg. 92–93)

Not all attempts at creating artificial sunlight would be as heavy or energy-consumptive as General Electric’s “sunshine ceiling”. In 1953, a much lighter-weight constellation of heat lamps was claimed to be an effective replacement for blankets, aimed at people who were “bothered” by bedcovers, though the illustrated image of the invention’s reclining user seems to suggest a much less pragmatic reason to purchase such a fixture. While prospective users were urged to “try this method of getting warmth without the weight”, the recreational effects of the heat lamps are plain to see. (Popular Science, November, 1953. pg. 133)

Various commercial attempts were made introduce smaller, less expensive tanning and sunning solutions, which culminated in the contemporary tanning bed. One interesting example — called “Solarota” — invented by British physiotherapist James Morgan in 1960 was a coin-operated ultra-violet light attached to a rotating “turntable” that a user would stand on, revolving “slowly to give you an even two-minute burn on all sides.” The plan, according to the 1960 feature on the invention, was to “install machines in drug stores and hairdressers’ shops.” (Popular Science, August, 1960. pg. 58)

Further commercial ventures providing the amenity of round-the-clock sunshine included consumer products such as the Sperti Sun Lamp, “designed to duplicate the sun’s health-aiding, life-giving rays!”, according to a 1963 Sperti ad. The Sperti Sun Lamp came in seven different models, each named after a particularly helio-centric destination. The ‘Waikiki’ was a collapsing, 6" x 4" x 2" 450-watt “travel model;” the ‘Phoenix’ — the cheapest of the line — was the “table model” of the collection; other table models included the 475-watt “Sun Valley” and the “space-saver” ‘Miami’ model. The collection had three different models of floor-standing lamps: the ‘Riviera’ model contained “Both infra-red (heat), [and] ultra-violet (sun),” and had an inbuilt timer; the 475-watt tripod-affixed ‘Malibu’ was “[r]eady for use in seconds;” and, “For total sun bathing,” the 600-watt ‘Palm Springs’ would combine “both infra-red and ultra-violet” light “at the flip of a switch,” with the added benefit of a “Built-in timer!” Boasting both health and recreational benefits, the ad implored its audience: “If you can’t go South Go Sperti.”

These days, it’s not difficult to whip together a dark-side-of-the-clock (and calendar) sun lounge. Two 250-watt infrared heat lamps clamped to a sun umbrella beside a webbed sun chair is all it takes. If seasonal blues are an issue for you — as they are for many — a wide variety of inexpensive full-spectrum Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) lights can be found online, to augment the pleasurable heat lamps that feel like August sun. Perhaps you’ll want to throw a potted tropical plant in for good measure, and you’re good to go. In any case, whether you feel the need (as apparently many generations of producers of artificial sun have done) to use health to justify your pleasure, the heat lamp will always be cheaper than a plane ticket.

    Eric Rogers

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