Jenolan Caves

First Cave in the World to have Electric Lighting

July 9, 2021

Helena Cave photo and photographer, Ludovico Hart

The matter of who first invented the electric light bulb is contentious.  Was it Joseph Swan in England or was it Thomas Edison in America? Well, however it happened, both men obtained their patents in 1879.

The very next year, in 1880, on the other side of the world, in the middle of nowhere, at the isolated Jenolan Caves, Lieutenant Colonel E.C. CracknellSuperintendent of Telegraphs, along with photographer Ludovico Wolfgang Hart, used cutting-edge technology, a light bulb, to illuminate 2 large caverns of what is now the Chifley Cave, then known as the Left Imperial Cave.  Sounds like an insignificant event, but it was the start of something much, much bigger.

Charles Edward Cracknell, Superintendent of Telegraphs, NSWCracknell and Hart

article announcing the sucessful installation of the NZ telegraph cableEdward Charles Cracknell devoted himself to scientific pursuits, and was most passionate about uses of electricity. A firm believer in electric light, he was president of the Electric Society of Sydney.

Through hard work, he had gained a position where he could bring Australia into the Age of Electricity. A man of great energy (no pun intended) and vision, he was NSW Superintendent of Telegraphs from 1858 until his death in 1893. He opened the first telegraph line, which ran from Sydney to Liverpool, 22 miles. 

By the time of his death, in 1893, NSW had 600 telegraph and telephone stations and over 22,000 miles of telegraph lines.  He travelled to England and to the U.S. to check out the latest advancements in telegraphic equipment, so that the equipment he implemented in NSW was the most modern available. He was Superintendent of Telegraphs when the telegraphic cable between Australia and NZ was laid.

Ludovico Hart

In 1877, he successfully transmitted songs and music 224km between West Maitland and Sydney, using telegraph wires, only 2 months after Alexander Graham Bell published details of his invention – the telephone - in Scientific American.[i] No one was as eager as Cracknell to promote new technology!

Ludovico Wolfgang Hart was a professional photographer, photomechanical printer and a pioneer of photographic education. He was brought to Australia in 1877, by the New South Wales Government Printing Office, to do photographic projects and to install the latest photomechanical technologies.[ii]

Photo-shoot for the Melbourne International Exhibition

In July, 1880, the huge Melbourne International Exhibition was fast approaching. The Melbourne International Exhibition was a huge and expensive international expo, the 8th ever held in the world and the first to be held in the Southern Hemisphere. Its aim was to promote commerce and industry, boost tourism, along with art, science and education.  A fabulous 7-acre building was erected for the exhibition, which was modelled on the great exhibitions of Europe.[iii]  (The Royal Exhibition Building still stands and is a World Heritage Site.) NSW did not want to be outdone by Victoria at this exhibition, and the NSW Government needed photographs of the Fish River Caves (as Jenolan was then known) as part of their display of the best of NSW. 

So an expedition was arranged by Cracknell, to Jenolan Caves. Cracknell brought batteries and lighting apparatus, and was assisted by Mr. G. A. Kopsch, Chief Mechanician of the Telegraphs Department [iv], who played a key role in the team’s survival, as you will see. The photographic team consisted of Ludovico Hart and 2 assistants. Another participant, known only as ‘Dr. D.’ came along to cook and attend to the ‘creature comforts’ of the team. The expedition was accompanied by 4 other volunteers, to provide muscle.

Maynooth batteryEdison lightbulb patented in 1880On the morning of July 22, 1880 [v], “every available hand, from the commander downwards, was told off to unload and carry up the iron cell batteries and the apparatus into the cave. 

This was no easy task, as each set of six cells weighed 96lbs – the whole, together with the acids and the electric light apparatus, exceeding 15 cwt.; but every one joined with willing hands”[vi].  (Note that 15 cwt equals 762 kg.)

After assembling all the components, the cavern was bathed in the glow of the electric light. Within minutes, Hart exposed the photographic plates, producing perfect negatives. 

This cavern was named the Margerita Cave, after Cracknells wife. They then photographed the next chamber, which was subsequently named the Helena Cave, after Hart’s wife.  

Narrowly Escaping Disaster

The next day, they took more photos, before disassembling everything for removal from the cave. This was where they encountered trouble, when acid fumes from the Maynooth (or Callan cell) battery nearly killed them. The battery was cast iron and zinc in solutions of nitric and sulphuric acid.[vii]  “The battery had been in operation about twenty-four hours and nitrous and carbonic acid fumes from the acid on the floor, were being given off in heavy voluminous clouds, through which the caves wore a dark appearance, and the lighted candles looked like red stars. All hands were willing enough to assist but no one could stand the fumes, so that in a very short time the surrounding space was occupied by prostrate forms gasping for fresh air.

“There was an old miner there named Reed, who had had large experience in under- ground work, and consequently was pretty well acquainted with the various kinds of foul air occasionally met with in avocations of that kind. He entered the arena with a view to remove the troublesome battery, but very soon beat a retreat with an exclamation more forcible than polite, having reference to the smelling effects of nitrous and carbonic acid combined. It fell to the lot of Mr. Kopsch to make a final effort, and he at length succeeded in accomplishing his effort.[viii]

Photo of the Helena Cavern (now called the Madonna Chamber) by Ludovico HartA Successful Exhibit

The resulting photos were a hit at the Melbourne International Exhibition. In Oct, 1880, the Bendigo Advertiser reported, “Among a number of these phototypes are some very fine views of the interior of the Fish River caves by Messrs. Hart and Roux, in which the beauties of those natural wonders with their stalagmites and stalactites have been faithfully copied from photographs taken by means of the electric light in a region where that of the sun can never penetrate. These caves, situated as they are inthe distant and mountainous interior of New South Wales, and little as they are now known to the world at large, will no doubt someday form one of the principal objects of attraction to curious old world tourists through the "Greater Britain" of the South.”[ix]

After that first photographic expedition, it was several years before permanent electric lighting was installed in Jenolan’s caves. First, politicians and public servants needed to decide if the expense would be worthwhile. 

More Lighting in the Caves

The Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal of 13 April 1886 reported, “we understand that during the past week, Mr. H. Wood, Under-Secretary for Mines, and Mr. Wilkinson, Government geologist, paid an official visit to the Fish River Caves, for the purpose of laying out some important improvements, their chief object being to consider the advisability of lighting the caves by electricity. …The enchanting loveliness ofsuch scenes as the Fairies' Retreats the Celestial City; the Queen's Diamonds, and the host of others, seen with the aid of this great modern innovation, would be almost beyond conception.”[x]

By that time, the caves could be accessed by a steep zig-zag road, via Oberon, and the ‘Keeper of the Caves’, Jeremiah Wilson, had built basic accommodation at the caves.

Swan lightbulb from 1884By September 1886, plans for electric lighting were well underway. The Mount Alexander Mail reported, “It is satisfactory to learn that arrangements are almost complete for the permanent lighting of the caves byelectricity. Lieutenant-Colonel Cracknell proposes to illuminate them in sections, containing each, say, 25 incandescent lamps, and when one section has been thoroughly explored the lamps therein will be cut off and those in the next section brought into operation, and so on- until the whole of the interior has been examined. It is intended that Swan's incandescent lamp of 20-candle power shall be used.”[xi]

So by 1888, electric lights has been installed throughout the Imperial Cave, at the cost of £3000. (That would have included the Left Imperial Cave, which we know today as the Chifley Cave.)[xii]

In Defence of Electric Lighting

After the electric lights were installed, some critics said that the previously used magnesium lights were better for photography.[xiii] Also, some said that the electric lights would fade the colours of the cave formations.[xiv]

However, Cracknell refuted all criticism, “On one of my visits to the caves, after an interval of a few years, I saw that many of the stalactites were becoming darkened by the soot condensed from the smoke from so many, candles, there being no exit or ventilation to carry it off; and, to prevent further injury of this kind, I proposed to illuminate the caves by electricity. There need be no anxiety as to any evil effect arising from the electric light, because --1, the rays omitted by it are not injurious; 2, the light is confined within an air- tight globe, and therefore throws no carbon particles into the air, as is the case with an open flame from candles; and 3, the light is exposed for such a brief space of time that, independently of other reasons, no such serious effects … can ensue.”[xv]

Historical lightbulb from the 1920, in the Margerita Chamber of the Chifley cave.Visiting the Margarita Chamber today

Today, in the first chamber of the Chifley Cave, the Margareta Chamber, you can still get a sense of the kind of lighting that Cracknell and Hart produced back on July 22, 1880. Amongst our subtle, state-of-the-art, environmentally-friendly, LED cave lighting, we keep an historic, solitary lightbulb in the ceiling of that chamber today. That carbon-element lightbulb, dates from around 1920, and still works.  When you enter this chamber it's fun to think about those old days when a lightbulb was a brand new, cutting edge technological wonder.

Of course, we take photography for granted - and lightbulbs even more so. But back then, the light bulb was a catalyst which took Aussies into a whole new age of electricity.  When, by feeble candlelight, Hart, Cracknell and a team of strong men, dragged 800kg of equipment and chemicals deep into a cave, and illuminated that chamber for what was basically a ‘photo-shoot’, it was the start of something much more important and amazing. 

Sydney didn’t get street lights until 1904, and most Aussie homes remained lit by gas for many years to come. Even Bathurst Hospital, for example, did not get electric lights until 1924.  

If you visit the Chifley Cave today, you will have the benefit of subtle lighting, carefully arranged for safety and to highlight the loveliest formations. See the images below.

Beautiful shawl formation in the Chifley Cave


Other reading

16 Jan 1893 - THE LATE LIEUTENANT-COLONEL E. C. CRACKNELL. - Trove (nla.gov.au) - Obituary of E.C. Cracknell

p17 - 23 Nov 1878 - Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney, NSW : 1870 - 1919) - Trove (nla.gov.au) - great bio of E.C. Cracknell



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