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Let There Be Light: The History of Lighting

Apr 02, 2014 | by Wendy Weinert

Without electric lighting, the modern world as we know it would not exist. Even so, the history of lighting began long before Edison's electric light bulb. Early humans relied on the sun for light, turning it into the most venerated object in the cosmos. All cycles of hunting and other work centered around the sun until the discovery of fire. It was only about 10,000 years ago that humans first harnessed fire for lighting. Fossilized humans have been discovered with carefully-wrapped "kits" for making fires: Flint, pyrite, makeshift tinder, and leaf-wrapped embers.

During the Roman Republic, wooden torches rubbed in pitch were developed. Tallow candles were also first made in Rome around 1 A.D., creating a practical light source accessible to average people. However, animal oil soon supplanted wood as the main fuel for lighting; on a much longer time frame, oil lanterns gradually took the place of candles. As modern nations emerged, they competed fiercely for whale oil, a fuel that burned bright, clear, and long. Throughout the 1700s, oil lamps remained the de facto "gold standard" for illumination.

Around 1813, William Murdoch's experiments burning coal to produce flammable gas for lamps inspired many rivals. This was the gas-light age: By 1860, more than 1,500 gas companies existed in Europe, the U.K., and the colonies. Unfortunately, gas lighting was impractical for rural areas and could be dangerous in cities. In 1882, Viennese scholar Carl Auer von Welsbach discovered incandescent lighting, even as others experimented with arc lighting using visible electrical currents. However, none of these met the need for portable electric lighting in cities. In 1881, Thomas Edison introduced the first practical electric light bulb, cementing his place in history.

Since Edison's day, the march of progress in lighting has been rapid. The General Electric Co. popularized the use of low-pressure mercury for brighter, whiter lighting, leading to the global spread of fluorescent lamps in the 1930s. Today, the principal challenge for lighting innovators is no longer illumination but efficiency. Modern fluorescent bulbs, known as CFLs, are highly efficient yet provide illumination comparable to incandescent bulbs; they have been adopted by law in many countries. It is amazing to imagine that portable, personal lighting is a reality for much of the Earth, lighting the night for billions of people worldwide.

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