Can you imagine an evening without any lights at home?
Well, there was a time when the setting of the sun indicated the end of the day’s work and signalled people to have an early dinner and call it a night.
But then the human race learned to tame fire and start using it to illuminate their homes at night. With that came the first primitive curved stone oil lamps, roughly in 70,000 BCE, which later got replaced by rushlights, consisting of moss or a core of reeds that were soaked in animal fat and lit ablaze. Gradually the moss got replaced by a ‘wick’ and was combined with early candle materials like beeswax or tallow (a hard fatty substance made from rendered animal fat). With this invention, candles became a sensation, as they could now control the burning length of the fire through wicks! Accompanied by a humble stand, it marched along with humans at night.
Centuries later came Thomas Edison, who tamed electricity inside a bulb and called it a discovery in 1879 that changed the way mankind dealt with darkness altogether. Everybody knows this part. But how did mankind learn to control electricity? Were there any discoveries post-Edison’s electric bulb? In this month’s Evolution of Everything, let’s tour the history of man-made lights – from oil lamps to electric bulbs, and from neon lights to stunning LEDs.
When French chemist Antoine Lavoisier’s discovery of oxygen and combustion touched the ancient craft of burning oil, it led to the creation of reformed versions of oil lamps. Subsequently, in 1780, Ami Argand, a Genevan physicist and chemist, invented the Argand lamp. It consisted of a hollow, circular wick, and a burner which was more luminous and efficient than previous oil lamps. Later on, his lamp got modified and was used with coal gas in 1784.
We can thank William Murdoch for experimenting with gas lighting and producing the first gaslight in this year. He produced lights using coal gas for lighting his house in Redruth, Cornwall. Soon, gas lights became popular and most cities in the United States and Europe had streets lit with gaslights.
Over the years, different types of gaslights have used different kinds of fuel that includes methane, acetylene, butane, propane, hydrogen, and natural gas. Thus, the growth of gaslights and the infrastructure to support them mirrored the advancements of the era of crude oil in the 1850s.
England’s Sir Humphry Davy invented the first electric arc lamp in 1815. He connected two wires to a battery and used charcoal strips as electrodes. This produced a sufficiently intense white light. By 1841, arc lighting started being adopted as street lighting in Paris as an experiment.
With the advancement of electric current began an era of fast progress in scientific pursuits. The decade witnessed numerous inventors patenting various forms of electric bulbs. Among them was the most influential carbon-thread incandescent lamp invented by American inventor Thomas Edison and Sir Joseph Swann of England. In 1879, Edison set out to invent the long-lasting electric light bulb that could compete with gaslighting.
This revolutionary advancement established electricity as the primary source of lighting for both indoors and outdoors.
The 20th century was the era of high-intensity discharge (HID) lamps. The beginning of the century saw the neon bulb trend when Georges Claude of France invented the neon lamp in 1911. Then popular as ‘liquid fire’ neon lights worked by applying an electric charge to a sealed tube of neon gas, thus causing it to glow.
A decade later, in 1927, three inventors – Friedrich Meyer, Hans Spanner, and Edmund Germer -invented the fluorescent light. These fluorescent lamps were filled with mercury vapour, which produced light when an electric current was passed through it. Due to its high efficiency, soon it surpassed incandescent lights to become the most commonly used lights in the United States.
This decade saw one lighting technology that was significantly different from the various HID bulbs. Called as the Light-Emitting Diode (LED), it didn’t require a glass housing like traditional bulbs and produced light by converting electrical current using a semiconductor. In 1962, General Electric scientist Nick Holonyak developed the first practical visible-spectrum (red) LED.
Another important invention of this decade was that of the laser light by American physicist Theodore Harold Maiman on 16 May 1960, at Hughes Research Laboratories.
1976 – Present
A series of energy crises between 1967 and 1979 caused by problems in the Middle East propelled scientists to find a convenient way to conserve energy. One scientist was Edward E. Hammer, who was working on a way to bend fluorescent tubes into a spiral shape and create the first Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFL) light that consumed less energy. The bulb could last 10 times longer than incandescent lights and used 75% lesser energy.
With the growing influence of technology, the evolution of lighting took a new turn. Introduction of smart lighting coupled with wireless charging enabled users to remotely control cooling, heating, and lighting appliances, while minimizing unnecessary light and energy use.
Another stylish and unobtrusive technology was the motion sensor lights, first invented in the early 1950s by Samuel Bango. He applied the fundamentals of radar to ultrasonic waves, a frequency that humans cannot hear, to detect a thief or a fire and named it as a ‘burglar alarm’. Much later, sensor lights became a part of every house and industry for being effortless, providing high levels of security, taking up minimal space while conserving a lot of energy.
The evolution of lighting is a long and luminous story. We can only guess where it will go from here. What will lighting look like in 50 years? What about the 22nd century? Tell us in the comment section below.
Books are Tanaya Goswami’s first love and cheesecakes come a close second. Talking about movies, music, calligraphy, politics, and Elon Musk will get you listed under the friends’ section of her diary. Ever since moving on from her job as an English lecturer, she spends her time at BYJU’S crafting stories filled with emotion and sprinkled with sarcasm. Outside of work, she’s either learning something new (French, most recently!) or is curled up with a book and a cup of coffee. She firmly believes that discovering what you don’t know is the key to knowledge and is constantly working towards improving herself. Drop in a line at [email protected] if you liked her stories, have something nice to say, or if you have compelling ideas to share!
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