I was doing a lot of historical research about the relationship of astronomy and urban design," Anton Willis says.
"A lot of it is from ancient history. Ancient city planning was either oriented to the cardinal points of solar equinoxes, or in some cases more complicated things. Especially in pre-Colombian America, there's a long history of organizing urban activities toward different astronomical events."
As he worked on his master's thesis at the University of California at Berkeley, Willis was seeing a lot of precedent for linking modern street lighting to the skies above.
"Even in more recent times," Willis says, "some of the first gas and electric streetlights, which had to be turned on by lamplighters, were just left off" during periods of bright moonlight.
Now in talks with communities in San Francisco, where he lives, and in Austin, Texas, Willis is in an active search for test markets for his Lunar-Resonant Streetlights, which use a sensor to measure and respond to moonlight.
His light source is housed in a fixture folded from a single sheet of aluminum. The arc of the shape is inspired by the lunar analemma, a geometrical diagram of the moon's movement.
Willis agrees that Floridian coastal communities could be particularly right for this lighting system because of the needs of nesting sea turtles on the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico shores. "A sort of peripheral area of research I was into involved how natural and astronomical cycles are involved with physiology and the human body and other animals.
"Sea turtles are particularly interesting because they live almost their entire lives in the sea, but come in to the beach during particular times of night at particular times of year to lay their eggs. When the turtles hatch" months after they're laid, " they instinctively crawl toward a light source to reach the water."
The turtle hatchlings interpret whichever major source of light they see as moonlight. In areas where streetlights are on, it's been known for decades that the young turtles can be thrown off course. "Instead of crawling to the water," Willis says, "they head inland toward the lights and they can die of dehydration."
While many coastal communities have lighting ordinances now, requiring residents and municipalities to keep bright lights away from turtle-nesting beachfronts, Lunar-Resonant lighting would automatically resolve the issue because on the bright-moon nights of sea turtle activities, the sensors would have dimmed the streetlight systems.
"I'm also working on an origami-based folding kayak," Willis says. "I've just started talking to a manufacturer on that one."
He and several other designers come together in a loose creative collective he calls Civil Twilight.
"I'm pretty much a lifelong tinkerer," Willis says. "I got it somewhat from my family. And especially in energy conservation. I grew up in rural Northern California, where we've been doing all kinds of alternative energy 20 years before anybody else started talking about it."
And how does Willis support himself? What's the current "day job" while he pursues funding and implementation for the Lunar-Resonant Streetlight system?
"Well, we're going after start-up money, at the moment. It's tricky, but the whole (San Francisco) Bay Area is shifting from Internet technology to green energy" industrial directions "so we're hopeful that we're in a good place for it.
"Some of this side of it," the marketing and business-developmental aspect, "is a new world for me."
He pauses and laughs. "But yeah, this is my day job at the moment. And it's pretty exciting to be involved in it."
Written by Porter Anderson