November 1st in Seal Beach History

On this date in 1916, The Chatham Record in Pittsboro, North Carolina ran the following story under the headline of “NOVEL ILLUMINATION:

The city of Seal Beach, Cal., is now attracting attention because of the novel idea of illuminating the entire water front which has been carried out by the officials. A battery of 41 powerful searchlights, each being of more than 25,000-candle power, has been placed on the outward edge of a long pier which extends out into the ocean from a point at the center of the water front. The illuminated water front may be seen far out at sea, while the searchlight beams are visible for miles Inland.

The Chatham was the first of sixty-five newspapers across ten states outside California that published the same exact story over the next three weeks, ending with The Pryor Creek Clipper in Pryor, Oklahoma and the Cawker City Public Record in (where else?) Cawker City, Kansas on November 23. It’s likely there were other newspapers that ran the story, but their archives are not online.

This is an impressive achievement for whoever was handling Seal Beach publicity in 1916 — especially when you consider those sixty-five identical stories against the mere thirty-seven stories mentioning Seal Beach in out-of-state newspapers (at least in the online newspaper archive I use) during the previous twelve months. The story probably originated as a press release or a news wire story and was picked up nationally.

The illumination highlighted in the story comes from the scintillator that was installed at the end of the Seal Beach pier. The scintillator was transported down to Seal Beach from the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) that was held in San Francisco in 1915. 

(One would expect a publicist to push to have the PPIE connection and the “scintillator” name in the “Novel Illumination” story to enhance the glamor of the attraction. Maybe the PPIE was passé by late 1916.)

The PPIE figures prominently in the early promotion of Seal Beach after the city incorporated in October 1915. Even before the exposition closed in December 2015, bombastic announcements were proclaiming that many of the PPIE attractions and acts would relocate to Seal Beach the next year. Only a few of those promised attractions made it to Seal Beach, most prominently the roller coaster and the scintillator — and even those were scaled back versions of the San Francisco installations.

The scintillator at the end of the Seal Beach pier did not use the 48-inch spotlight lamps from the PPIE scintillator located along the San Francisco waterfront during the PPIE. Instead, the smaller 16-inch lamps that were used to highlight the 435-foot Tower of Jewels building that stood at the center of the exposition grounds were purchased for Seal Beach. (And I count forty-seven spotlights, not forty-one as reported in the “Novel Illumination” story.)

Although the Seal Beach scintillator was smaller and did not the have the projection reach of the PPIE scintillator, the effect was still stunning and definitely nothing like it had ever been seen in Orange County. For many tourists to Seal Beach during this period, the scintillator light show was the high point of their visit.

There is no film of the Seal Beach scintillator in action, but this black and white night time footage from the Keystone film, “Mabel and Fatty Viewing the World’s Fair at San Francisco” shows what the Seal Beach night sky looked like in 1916 – albeit on a much less grand scale.

Now imagine those same spotlight beams filling the night with color.

The San Francisco scintillator was just one element in the spectacularly innovative lighting on display across the entire exposition. The exposition lighting, designed by Walter D’Arcy Ryan, the director of General Electric’s Illuminating Engineering Laboratory, utilized a variety of illumination effects, and photos, postcards, and film footage can only give a taste of what the fair lighting looked like in real life. Ryan described the San Francisco scintillator in a presentation to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in 1916:

The scintillator consisted of combining searchlights in systematic drill in colored and white beams with smoke and steam, so as to produce spectacular effects or tireless fireworks, both aerial and on the ground, possessing artistic color combinations and blendings impossible with ordinary fireworks. This was further enhanced by the running of a large express locomotive at high speed under brake so as to produce large volumes of smoke and steam which were illuminated in color. Other steam effects were in the form of fans, plumes, wheels, fighting serpents, etc.

The Seal Beach scintillator remained a major feature of Seal Beach advertising until 1919 and then disappeared from newspapers except for historical profiles of Seal Beach’s wild past, and I can find no mention of their being used beyond that year.

A century later I can’t help longing for a modern-day scintillator to be installed at the end of the Seal Beach pier and use modern technology to duplicate or exceed the night sky spectacle that once brought thousands to the Seal Beach shore.

– Michael Dobkins


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