Sydney’s Vivid Festival is four years old this year – a festival of ‘light, music & ideas’, one if its big attractions are the light displays, or illuminations, on the buildings that line Circular Quay. But the history of illuminating the buildings and streets of Sydney stretches back almost 150 years – to the mid 19th century – with the introduction of artificial electrical lighting.

Coronation decorations, Mark Foys Department Store, Sydney, 1937 (Home and Away – 14752, State Library of NSW)

In the 19th and 20th centuries, illumination displays tended to be reserved for celebrations – for example, visits by royalty, Anniversary Day (the precursor to today’s Australia Day), coronations of royalty, New Years Eve, the end of the first and second world wars, the Centenary of Australia’s ‘foundation’ in 1888, the Sesqui-Centenary in 1938, and more recently the 1988 Bicentenary.

Illuminations in honour of the visit of Prince Alfred in 1868 (Illustrated Sydney News, Saturday 22 February 1868)

Illuminations for these sorts of celebrations, which were usually centred on Circular Quay and Sydney Harbour, were an egalitarian form of entertainment, bringing people from all walks of life into the heart of the city, in a similar way that firework displays are a draw card both then and today.

Illumination of Sydney Town Hall for the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1920 (CRS 51/4041, City of Sydney Archives)

Illuminations in the 19th and early 20th centuries showcased the evolving technologies of artificial electrical lighting, and as such, were a signifier of the advances of the modern age. The use of illuminations paved the way for the nightlife that we enjoy in Sydney today.

But on a deeper level, perhaps light and fireworks displays reveal our unconscious fear of the night and are a way of keeping the darkness at bay – after all,  the fall of dusk signifies an ending and the night itself, with its dreams and nightmares, represent disorder, chaos and the unknown. The break of dawn, in contrast, represents a kind of rebirth with a new day.

Whatever. Bring on the night, bring on the light!