The Jesuit scientist prepared carefully for the public demonstration of a new technology called electric light. It was July 4, 1876, and the City of San Francisco, along with the entire nation, was celebrating the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia a hundred years earlier. The year 1876 also marked the centennial of the founding of San Francisco by Spanish soldiers and Franciscan priests. To commemorate these two major milestones, the city’s civic leaders wanted to do something extraordinary, and they turned for help to the leading scientist in the city, and one of the most prominent scientists in the world: Joseph Neri, S.J., professor of natural sciences at St. Ignatius College.
For his scientific demonstration on July 4, 1876, Fr. Neri waited until a celebratory nighttime parade of civic leaders and military detachments started to march down Market Street in front of a throng of spectators. At the appropriate moment, Fr. Neri threw a lever and illuminated the night sky and the entire parade with arc lights, lamps, and reflectors suspended by wires from the roof of St. Ignatius College (then located on Market Street, between Fourth and Fifth Streets) to the other side of the street. A newspaper reported at the time that Fr. Neri’s lights “threw a stream of soft, mellow light along the line of march of the military and civic procession down to the ferry at the bay….” Following the parade, Fr. Neri moved his equipment to the Mechanics’ Pavilion, on the corner of Mission and Eighth Streets, where it was displayed for the next three months as part of the centennial celebration and the Eleventh Industrial Exhibition of the Mechanics’ Institute. The Mining and Scientific Press reported that “the exhibitions given by Father Neri with this light are very interesting—the immense pavilion being completely flooded with light so strong that people at some distance are compelled to shade their eyes.” During the exhibition, Fr. Neri offered lectures and demonstrations twice a week at the pavilion with the assistance of St. Ignatius College students. He also displayed the first working miniature electric train west of the Mississippi. After the festivities were over, the Mechanics’ Institute of San Francisco reported:
Thousands of visitors, who were unaware even of the existence of such means of knowledge and scientific information, could not but derive much profit and advantage from such a display…. We may well congratulate ourselves for possessing within our midst, in this young city and state, such facilities for scientific education as St. Ignatius College affords to our rising generation, and such a cabinet of philosophical apparatus, second to none in the United States.
Joseph Neri was born in Novara, Lombardy, in 1836, the son of a noble Italian family. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1856, came to the United States in 1857, and a year later was teaching science at the Jesuit Santa Clara College. In 1869, he moved to St. Ignatius College and began a series of elaborate electrical experiments in conjunction with his teaching. As early as 1869, people passing by St. Ignatius College at night saw curious lights emanating from the windows of the school. Fr. Neri had constructed and refined an electrical lighting system to use during his college lectures, powered by the state’s first storage battery, composed of a combination of peroxide and lead with about 30 chemical plates. Fr. Neri soon turned his college lectures into public events, drawing large crowds to the college. To celebrate the Silver Jubilee of Pope Pius IX on July 2, 1871, more than 12,000 San Franciscans marched in a parade up Market Street to the Mechanics’ Institute Pavilion. After dark, groups of revelers crowded the sidewalk in front of St. Ignatius College to witness the cascade of light emanating from Fr. Neri’s arc lamp in his classroom window. During a public lecture in 1874, Fr. Neri further demonstrated to a crowd the power of electric light, using a “mammoth magneto-electric” device known as the “Alliance Machine.” The device had been used in the second siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War for “lighting defensive work.” Tiburcio Parrott, one of the first major benefactors of St. Ignatius College, had purchased the machine for the college. Fr. Neri amplified the machine’s magnets by running an electric current to them from the storage battery he had developed. He connected the machine to a “lighthouse,” which was positioned on the roof of St. Ignatius College and described in announcements as a “spherical mirror and a large Fresnel lens a échelons, mounted on a rotating table to project the light to the most distant points around San Francisco and the bay within range of the tower. The light is such as to be seen at a distance of two hundred miles.” Fr. Neri’s various demonstrations were the first public displays of electricity on the Pacific Coast, and they further enhanced his fame and that of St. Ignatius College.
Fr. Neri taught hundreds of students at St. Ignatius College from 1869 to 1892, chaired the natural sciences department for most of that time, published scientific papers, and gave scores of public lectures and demonstrations. He possessed vast knowledge about all branches of chemistry and physics, including a special expertise in spectroscopy and electricity. One of his students, John Montgomery, who received his Bachelor of Science degree from St. Ignatius College in 1879 and his Master of Science in 1880, made aviation history when he built and successfully flew the world’s first glider in 1883. By the time St. Ignatius College moved from Market Street to the corner of Van Ness and Hayes Avenues in 1880, Fr. Neri had collected more scientific equipment than anyone in the Western United States, valued at nearly $100,000. Fr. Neri also founded the Loyola Scientific Academy for the college’s alumni, with the goal of cultivating ongoing research in various branches of applied physics, chemistry, geology, and mineralogy. The Academy read and analyzed scientific papers, discussed scientific problems, and “broadened the scientific horizon” of its members.
Joseph Neri, S.J., holds an important place in the history of the science of electricity. Preceding him were scientists like William Gilbert, who conducted the first major study of magnetism and electricity in 1600; Benjamin Franklin, whose 1751 book Experiments and Observations on Electricity became a standard work on electrical apparatuses, electrical charges, and experiments with lightning; Alessandro Volta, who in the early 1800s developed the first instruments to produce continuous electrical current; Sir Humphry Davy, who in 1808 first ran an electric current through a small gap between two carbon rods to produce an arc of electric light; and Michael Faraday, whose laboratory research from 1825 to 1862 laid down many of the empirical foundations for the theory of electricity and magnetism still used today. Notable contemporaries of Fr. Neri were Charles Brush, who developed a generator that brought the first large-scale system of streetlights to Cleveland, Ohio in 1879; and Thomas Edison, who invented the incandescent lamp in 1879 and developed a lighting system for New York City in 1883.
Fr. Neri’s use of electricity to illuminate St. Ignatius College and Market Street in San Francisco, however, was a decade before Edison’s invention of the incandescent lamp. In pursuing his investigations, Fr. Neri was the first scientist to use a storage battery and a magnetic machine in California, and his electrical demonstrations so impressed the civic leaders of San Francisco that they installed “an electrical system of illumination then regarded as the largest in the world.” In September 1879, the newly organized California Electric Light Company (the forerunner of the Pacific Gas & Electric Company), operating out of a hastily built power station next door to St. Ignatius College, supplied the first commercial electricity to San Francisco’s initial three-dozen electric lamps. In the same year, San Francisco’s premier hotel, the Palace Hotel, and its most fashionable playhouse, the California Theater, installed brilliant arc lights modeled on those pioneered by Joseph Neri, S.J.
Alan Ziajka, Ph.D.
Associate Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and University Historian