A street light, lamppost, street lamp, light standard or lamp standard, is a raised source of light on the edge of a road, turned on or lit at a certain time every night. Modern lamps may also have light-sensitive photocells to turn them on at dusk and off at dawn, or activate automatically in dark weather. It is also not uncommon for street lights to be on posts which have wires strung between them, such as on telephone poles or utility poles.
Before incandescent lamps, gas lighting was employed. The earliest lamps required that a lamplighter tour the town at dusk, lighting each of the lamps, but later designs employed ignition devices that would automatically strike the flame when the gas supply was activated. The earliest of such street lamps were built in the Arab Empire, especially in Córdoba, Spain.
The first electric street lighting employed arc lamps, initially the 'Electric candle', 'Jablochoff candle' or 'Yablochkov candle' developed by the Russian Pavel Yablochkov in 1875. This was a carbon arc lamp employing alternating current, which ensured that the electrodes burnt down at the same rate. Yablochkov candles were first used to light the Grands Magasins du Louvre, Paris where 80 were deployed. Soon after, experimental arrays of arc lamps were used to light Holborn Viaduct and the Thames Embankment in London - the first electric street lighting in Britain. More than 4,000 were in use by 1881, though by then an improved differential arc lamp had been developed by Friederich von Hefner‑Alteneck of Siemens & Halske. The United States was swift in adopting arc lighting, and by 1890 over 130,000 were in operation in the US, commonly installed in exceptionally tall moonlight towers.
The first street in the world to be lit by electric light was Mosley Street, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The street was lit by Joseph Swan's incandescent lamp in February, 1879. Wabash, Indiana holds the title of being the second electrically-lit city in the world, which took place on February 2, 1880. Four 3,000 candlepower Brush arc lamps suspended over the courthouse rendered the town square "as light as midday. Kimberley, a city in the centre of South Africa, was the first city in Africa to have electric street lights - first lit on 1 September 1882. Timişoara, in present-day Romania, was the first city in mainland Europe to have electric public lighting on the 12th of November 1884. 731 lamps were used.
Arc lights had two major disadvantages. First, they emit an intense and harsh light which, although useful at industrial sites like dockyards, was discomforting in ordinary city streets. Second, they are maintenance intensive, as carbon electrodes burn away swiftly. With the development of cheap, reliable and bright incandescent light bulbs at the end of the 19th century, they passed out of use for street lighting, but remained in industrial use longer.
Incandescent lamps used for street lighting until the advent of high-intensity discharge lamps, were often operated as high-voltage series circuits. To avoid having the entire street go dark if a single lamp burned out, each street lamp was equipped with a film cutout, a small disk of insulating film that separated two contacts connected to the two wires leading to the lamp. If the lamp failed (an open circuit), the current through the string became zero, causing the entire voltage of the circuit (thousands of volts) to be imposed across the insulating film, penetrating it (see Ohm's law). In this way, the failed lamp was bypassed and illumination restored to the rest of the street. (This is the same principle used in Christmas tree lights.) The circuit usually contained an automatic device to regulate the voltage in the circuit, preventing the current from increasing as additional lamps burned out , preserving the life of the remaining lamps. When the failed lamp was replaced, a new piece of film was installed, once again separating the contacts in the cutout. This style of street lighting was recognizable by the large porcelain insulator that separated the lamp and reflector from the light's mounting arm. The insulator was necessary because the two contacts in the lamp's base may have operated at several thousands of volts above ground/earth.
Today, street lighting commonly uses high-intensity discharge lamps, often HPS high pressure sodium lamps. Such lamps provide the greatest amount of Photopic illumination for the least consumption of electricity. However when Scotopic/Photopic light calculations are used, it can been seen how inappropriate HPS lamps are for night lighting. White light sources have been shown to double driver peripheral vision and increase driver brake reaction time at least 25%. When S/P light calculations are used, HPS lamp performance needs to be reduced by a minimum value of 75%. This is now a standard design criteria for Australian roads.
The major criticisms of street lighting are that it can actually cause accidents if misused, and can cause light pollution.
There are also physical dangers. Street light stanchions (poles) pose a collision risk to motorists. This can be reduced by designing them to break away when hit (frangible or collapsible supports), protecting them by guardrails, or both. High winds or accumulated metal fatigue also occasionally topple street lights.
The light pollution also disrupts the natural growing cycle of plants.
A misconception is that installing street lights will automatically make streets safer and reduce crime, so political pressure can be a major factor in installation of street lights. Untrained officials often assume that if some is good, more must be better, and install the brightest lights possible. Misuse of street lights can cause accidents, and crime lighting is an entirely different type of lighting than used for automobile navigation.
There are three distinct main uses of street lights, each requiring different types of lights and placement. Misuse of the different types of lights can make the situation worse by compromising visibility or safety.
If it is desired to light a roadway (perhaps due to heavy and fast multilane traffic), to avoid the dangers of casual placement of street lights it should not be lit intermittently, as this requires repeated eye reajustment which implies eyestrain and temporary blindness when entering and leaving light pools. In this case the system is designed to eliminate the need for headlights. This is usually achieved with bright lights placed on high poles at close regular intervals so that there is consistent light along the route. The lighting goes from curb to curb.
Research a few years ago suggested that by comparison to other countries, more pedestrians are hit by motor vehicles at night in Britain. The theory behind this was that Britain almost exclusively, used low pressure sodium street lighting, (LPS); unlike the rest of the world that use mercury vapour gas discharge lighting. This was most noticeable when flying in from Europe at night and seeing a warm orange glow when approaching Britain. LPS lighting, being monochromatic, shows pedestrians as shadowy forms, unlike other forms of street lighting. In recognition of this, pedestrian crossings are now lit by additional "white" lighting, and sodium lighting is being replaced by modern types.
Security lighting is similar to high-intensity lighting on a busy major street, with no pools of light and dark, but with the lighted area extending onto people's property, at least to their front door. This requires a different type of fixture and lens. The increased glare experienced by drivers going through the area might be considered a trade-off for increased security. This is what would normally be used along sidewalks in dense areas of cities. Often unappreciated is that the light from a full moon is brighter than most security lighting.