Beginning in 1859, the lighthouse was the site of the first commercial application of generator-powered electric-arc lighting. At the end of the century, however, only about thirty had been installed among thousands of lighthouses worldwide. In seeking to explain the differential adoption of the technology, this paper compares the performance characteristics of electric lights and its competitor, oil lamps. Although the electric arc was at a disadvantage in utilitarian performance characteristics, such as costs of installation and maintenance, it was an adequate light under most conditions and excelled in haze and light fog; it could also uniquely symbolize a nation's command of cutting-edge electrical science and technology. Most nations, favoring utilitarian performance characteristics in their decisions, adopted no electric lights. In adopting nations, especially France and England, symbolic performance was heavily weighted, for the electric light was both an aid to navigation and a political technology.