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.
Lighting a Revolution: National Museum of American History exhibit focusing on 19th and 20th century lamps.
A Brief History of Stage Lighting: An overview of the types of lighting used for dramatic productions dating back to the 1500s.
Edison's Electric Light Bulb Patent: All about Edison's invention of the first practical electric light bulb.
The LED at 50: An introduction to the light-emitting diode.
The Lighting Research Center: Independent center for research into lighting technologies and their use.
The History of Fluorescent Lighting: Traces the history of fluorescent lighting from its original decorative use to current practical applications.
The History of Electroluminescent Lights: Research report from the University of Minnesota focusing on electroluminescent displays.
Discover Lighting: Includes illustrated articles about many aspects of lighting, including its history, science, electrical light sources, and sustainability.
Ancient, Gas, and 20th Century Lighting: Follows the history of lighting from the prehistoric period to the development of sodium discharge lighting in the 1920s.
The Electric Light System: Information from the National Parks Service concerning Thomas Edison and his team. Designed for children.
Seattle City Light System: A glimpse at the history of the 104-year-old municipal lighting service in Seattle, Washington.
Boston Street Lighting History: A timeline and history of street lamps and government-sponsored lighting initiatives throughout the city of Boston.
History of Artificial and Solid-State Lighting: Illustrated articles from Sandia National Laboratories. Link discusses and describes the differences between various common light sources.
Edison's Original Patent Application for the Light Bulb: Electronic reproduction of the original 1880 document filed with the United States patent office.
Solid-State Lighting News: Recent headlines and articles relating to solid-state lighting. Innovations and breakthroughs from across the U.S. gathered by the Department of Energy.
Ancient History of Light and Lighting: History of lighting including major events from the dawn of recorded history to the development of the sulfur lamp in the 1990s. Focuses on the evolution of stage lighting.
History of Lighthouses: A brief history of one of the most significant early uses of lighting, the development of beacons to guide ships around dangerous shorelines.
A History of Lighting Education: Illustrated article discussing the history of education in lighting-related topics for theater and architecture.
History of the Compact Fluorescent Light: A presentation by the then-director of the California Lighting Technology Center describing the origin of compact fluorescents and their importance in energy efficiency.
California Lighting Technology Center: One of the largest and most influential modern research centers for lighting and energy efficiency.