HECO and Hawaii: A History Entwined
Inspired by the Vision of a King
Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) may be the only electric utility in the United States -- perhaps in the world -- inspired to go into business by the vision and enthusiasm of a king.
That king was David Kalakaua, a monarch with a technical and scientific bent and an insatiable curiosity for modern devices. In an era of gas lamps, Kalakaua was shrewd enough to recognize the potential of "electricity," and helped pioneer its introduction in the Hawaiian kingdom. His vision led to the formation of HECO and the services HECO has since provided for over a century have paralleled the economic growth and modernization of the State of Hawaii.
It was the late 1870s, and "electricity" was the talk of society. The king had heard and read about this revolutionary new form of energy, but he needed further evidence of its practical application. Who better to get this information from than Thomas Edison, inventor of the incandescent lamp? Kalakaua arranged to meet Edison in New York in 1881 during the course of a world tour.
Five years after Kalakaua and Edison met, Charles Otto Berger, a Honolulu-based insurance executive with mainland connections, organized a demonstration of "electric light" at the king's residence, Iolani Palace, on the night of July 26, 1886. The Pacific Commercial Advertiser described the occasion this way: "Shortly after 7 o'clock last night, the electricity was turned on and, as soon as darkness decreased, the vicinity of Palace Square was flooded with a soft but brilliant light which turned darkness into day... by 8 o'clock an immense crowd had gathered. Before 9 o'clock, the Royal Hawaiian Military band commenced playing and the Military Companies soon marched into the square... a tea party was given under the auspices of the Society for the Education of Hawaiian Children organized by her Royal Highness the Princess Liliu'okalani and Her Royal Highness, the Princess Likelike. The Palace was brightly illuminated, and the large crowd moving among the trees and tents made a pretty picture."
Shortly after this event, David Bowers Smith, a North Carolinian businessman living in Hawaii, persuaded Kalakaua to install an electrical system on the palace grounds. The plant consisted of a small steam engine and a dynamo for incandescent lamps. On November 16, 1886 -- Kalakaua's birthday -- Iolani Palace became the world's first royal residence to be lit by electricity.
With the Palace lit, the government began exploring ways to establish its own power plant to light the streets of Honolulu. Finally a decision was made to use the energy of flowing water to drive the turbines of a power plant built in Nuuanu Valley. On Friday, March 23, 1888, Princess Kaiulani, the king's niece, threw the switch that illuminated the town's streets for the first time. The Honolulu Gazette wrote of that moment: "At 7:30 p.m. the sound of excitement in the streets brought citizens, printers, policemen and all other nocturnal fry rushing outdoors to see what was up. And what they did see was Honolulu lighted by electricity. The long looked for and anxiously expected moment had arrived."
A year later, the first of a handful of residences and business had electricity. By 1890, this luxury had been extended to 797 of Honolulu's homes.