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The Evolution Of Light

The story of how we came to have 24 hour light


500 years ago everyone lived in the dark. Of all the great achievements in science and invention, the production and application of artificial light without a doubt ranks amongst one of the greatest. However transforming night into day and day into night at the touch of a switch is now taken for granted and we often forget how we came to have 24 hour light! Both natural and artificial light is at the core of our health, well being, safety, efficiency, fortune and happiness - It is detrimental to our livelihoods. 

‘Darkness was upon the face of the deep; this was due to a malfunction at Lots Road Power Station. And God said, let there be light; and there was Light, but Eastern Electricity Board said he would have to wait until Thursday to be connected. And God saw the Light and it was good; He saw the quarterly bill and it was not good’.

The Bible, The Old Testament according to Spike Milligan.

Artificial lighting technology began to be developed tens of thousands of years ago, and continues to be refined in the present day, from the oil lamp through to the first practical incandescent electric light bulb and the energy saving LED.

Timeline of Lighting Technology
70,000 BC- 2014

70,000 BC: The first lamps were made from a hollow rock, shell, or other natural found objects and were filled with dried plants or similar materials that were then soaked in animal fat and ignited.

4500 BC onwards: Oil lamps

4500-3300 BC: The first manufactured red pottery oil lamps were created in the Chalcolithic Age and were of the round bowl type.

3200-1200 BC: The Bronze Ages then further developed the oil lamp. Lamps were simple wheel-made bowls with a slight pinch on four sides for the wick. Later lamps had only one pinch, with the shape evolving to be more triangular, deeper and larger.

1200-560 BC: The Iron Age made the rim of the lamp wider and flatter with a higher sprout. The lamps also started to become variable in shape (both small lamps with a flat base and larger lamps with a round base).
The Greeks further developed the lamps to become more closed to avoid spilling and used Terracotta to create the round, wheel made oil lamp.

For the next 2,000 years production of oil lamps then shifted to Italy as the main source of supply during the Roman period, with lamps being produced in large scale factories. These lamps were created using moulded clay and were often embellished with writing, allegorical or erotic scenes.

3000 BC: Stone oil lamps and candles are invented.

900 CE: Muhammad ibn Zakarīya Rāzi invented the kerosene lamp.

Prior to the introduction of gas light in the late 18th century, there had been a number of experimental attempts to source another different type of light from electric energy.

Otto Von Guericke (1663) produced the first man made electric light by means of a revolving sulphur filled glass globe which then rubbed against a cloth and produced sparks of electricity. By 1709 Francis Hauksbee added a small amount of mercury to the glass globe, getting rid of most of the air from it. Once a sufficiently strong charge of static electricity had been built up the globe glowed when warm hands were placed on it. This was the world’s first proto-neon light.

After Hauksbee’s electric static experiments it was then nearly a century of research by other scientists until there were any further developments.

18th Century

The 18th Century saw the start of the industrial revolution which resulted in an increased demand for more and more light.

1777: William Murdoch went to work at engineering firm Boulton & Watt in Birmingham. They made factory equipment such as steam engines and later the provision of lighting equipment. Following a report on Lebon's lighting scheme in France they encouraged the development of suitable lighting equipment using a team of their engineers.

1792: William Murdoch invented the use of coal for lighting, oil was therefore superseded by coal as the lighting fuel of choice.

1799: Engineers at Boulton & Watt started to manufacture gas lighting equipment and gas street lamps were installed to illuminate Pall Mall in London and in 1813 Westminster Bridge was lit by gas light and within a few years gas lighting was being used in other countries as well, Paris was gas light by 1820.

19th Century

The 19th Century saw the race to build a viable electrical light source, which saw many scientists battle to be the first to invent this.

The development of electrical lighting coincided with the new profession of industrial design.

Sir Humphry Davy conducted his first electrical discharge lighting experiments. These experiments first started to fuel interest in the idea of electric lighting using the incandescent principle- based on the observation that solids and gases when heated to a temperature above 520 degrees will emit light.

 1809: Humphry Davy had perfected the first electric carbon arc. This apparatus did not have a filament and relied solely on two carbon rods place very closely together, but not touching. The electric current sparked across the small gap to form an arc of glowing vapour, while the carbon points become white hot and this produced light over 10000 lm and thus 1000 times brighter than candles. Davy then demonstrated this to the public at the Royal Society.

It wasn’t till 30 years later that commercial arc lighting systems began to develop.

1834: William Edwards Staite embarked on a series of experiements with arc lighting- this resulted in him filing for a number of patents for lamp mechanisms and the production of carbon rods.

A Brief History of the Bulb


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