Light and sound

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The age of light and sound

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Modern Denmark: satellite TV, digital audio broadcasting, the internet, mobile phones and lots of light, clean water and flushing toilets. Denmark 150 years ago: newspapers, letters, dark alleys and parlours, well water and outhouses. The latter half of the 19th century marked not only the dawn of democracy in Denmark, it also saw a flurry of new inventions.

Stamps and telegraphs
In 1851 the postal service introduced the stamp as inexpensive unit postage. That set off the country's urge to communicate. In the span of just a few years, mail volumes increased from 4 million letters a year to over 12 million. In 1854 the State Telegraph began operating the first electromagnetic telegraph line connecting Helsingør (Elsinore) with Copenhagen and Copenhagen with Hamburg. Within a few decades the entire world had been enshrouded in telegraph wires, "the Victorian internet". Businesses and the press preferred it as a means of communication; it was more expensive, but faster than letters.

New lighting

In Odense, the city's new gasworks was able to provide lights for streets and houses starting in 1853. In the capital, Hans Christian Andersen called 1857 the "remarkable year", because that year Copenhagen switched from whale oil to gas lamps to light streets and squares. "The city had installed gas, and it beamed so brightly that the old lights just vanished into it," wrote Andersen in "Godfather's Picture Book". During the same year, the first electric light was turned on in Copenhagen when War Commissioner Hoegh-Guldberg demonstrated the "white light" from a carbon arc lamp at the Christiansborg Palace riding grounds. During the 1890s, all major cities and towns were electrified.

Cholera gave clean water
The cholera epidemic of 1853 forced Danes to discuss drinking water and wastewater. Odense became the first city to filter its water, when it began doing so using a British method. Copenhagen followed in 1859, and the following year saw the introduction of the first sewers. Before the 19th century was over, the toilet, the electric light and the phone had all begun to find their way into the Danish homes.

Danish wind power

It wasn't until after World War II that the toilet, electric light and the telephone became standard in most homes. Surplus heat from electrical production and natural gas pumped up from the North Sea have kept generations of Danes warm in many parts of the country. We continue to burn large quantities of coal, oil, gas and waste for light, heat and power, but Denmark has also given energy producers the electricity-generating wind turbine . The first test turbine was erected by Poul la Cour at Askov Folk High School in 1891 and today Denmark is a world leader in wind technology.

Denmark is dark and cold most of the year, so it may seem strange that it took more than a hundred years for the new lighting and heating technologies to spread to all. But part of the reason was that the state chose to leave responsibility for it to local authorities.

The original wireless
But one area where the state did have a major influence was access to the 20th century's new mass media: radio and television. People were hungry for both news and entertainment. The press had experienced explosive growth around the turn of the century, but interest in the radio broke all records. Statsradiofonien (Danish state radio) began broadcasting on a daily basis in 1925, and fifteen years later, there was hardly a Danish household without a wireless. TV got a late start in Denmark because of World War II, but once it was introduced it only took 20 years before it had become a household item.

The personal computer found its way into homes just as fast as televisions had. But both have been outpaced by the mobile phone. In 1982 the first fully automatic mobile telephone network, the Nordic Mobile Telephone Network (NMT), began service. The first mobile phones were expensive and could hardly be called mobile. In 1992 the global GSM 900 network came to Denmark and now the market was being flooded with the handy and inexpensive phones we now associate with mobile telephony: a mobile for 1 krone if you sign up! Within a few years there were more mobiles in Denmark than there were Danes.