When you think about lighting, it’s important to think of three different things: the fuel source, the luminaire, and the technology used to produce visible light. We’ll touch on those three items as we look at the evolution of lighting from its birth to the modern-day revolution that is happening with 21st-century LED technology:
The first lamp was invented made of a shell, hollowed-out rock, or other similar non-flammable objects which was filled with combustible material (probably dried grass or wood), sprinkled with animal fat (the original lighter fluid) and ignited.” Handheld and building-mounted torches progressed well beyond their rudimentary start but the basic principles remain the same: the fuel source is some type of oil, wax, or combustible material surrounded by non-flammable material.
But it wasn’t until 4500 BC that humanity would be able to sustain a light source without managing it. This was when the basic oil lamp was invented which was then followed by the candle in 3500 BC.
Before electricity, lamps were the focus of development by inventors.
But then the Argand lamp was invented in 1780 and it became a must-have product in 18th-century Paris. This was because the lamp was much more efficient and it generated ten times the light that a single candle could.
The next major advancements in lighting (gas lamps and electric lamps) happened in sequence nearly a century apart with the advent and progress of the industrial revolution. In 1792, the first gas lamp was invented by William Murdoch which revolutionized the use and evolution of lighting outside of the home. Major advantages for gas (barriers to entry for electricity) included the already existing infrastructure by the time electric lights came out and the ability for dual-purpose use (gas could also be used for cooking)
Gas lighting was developed in England in 1790 and introduced to the United States shortly thereafter by William Murdoch. Pelham Street in Newport, Rhode Island was the first section of road in America to introduce Murdoch’s gas lights (they were installed in 1792). Only a few decades later gas fuel was being used for street lighting in major eastern cities of the United States like Philadelphia and Baltimore. You can read the full history of street lighting in the USA here. Different types of gas have been used over the years to include methane, acetylene, butane, propane, hydrogen, and natural gas. The growth of gas lamps and the infrastructure to support them in cities and suburbs mirrored the advancements of the era in hydrocarbon fuel production (coal and petroleum production and distillation).
Before the 19th century, factory work was perilous. Early cotton mills relied on water or steam engines and any stray machinery could harm a worker if they couldn’t properly repair it. It was Philips and Lee’s cotton mill in Salford that began to change this by employing gas lamps.
Humphrey Davy’s safety mining lamp allowed coal miners to avoid setting alight the flammable methane which existed naturally within the mine. Without the new lamp, mining operations were deadly and many workers died.
These early improvements saved countless lives in dangerous industries and minimized injury even more. For modern offices and businesses, the story was different. It wasn’t until the invention of electricity that the world of work changed forever.
The first electric light was created by Englishman Humphry Davey. According to the US Department of Energy Davy “demonstrated the first incandescent light to the Royal Institute in Great Britain, using a bank of batteries and two charcoal rods.
”His invention was what we commonly refer to as an arc light (modern-day versions of which are still being used today).
After electricity was made available to homes and businesses on a city level, traditional methods of illumination slowly lost their market share. They weren’t a viable option anymore after 1880 when Thomas Edison patented a bulb that could last for 1500 hours.
Though his first successful prototype was on October 22, 1879, when his incandescent light burned for 13 and a half hours, A few months after that, Edison discovered a carbonized bamboo filament that would burn for 1200 hours
Incandescent bulbs would go on to dominate the world of lighting until fluorescent lights were introduced commercially by Daniel McFarlan Moore
Although early fluorescent lights required high voltage and non-standard connectors to operate, their relatively high efficiency when compared to incandescent lights was significant enough competition to cause major incandescent manufacturer General Electric to improve upon their incandescent technology by introducing the tungsten filament. Concurrently (circa 1901) an inventor named Peter Cooper Hewitt developed the first mercury-vapor light that was both high efficiency and compatible with standard electrical infrastructure.
The 20th century was the century of high-intensity discharge (HID) lamps. Amongst the most popular and commercially successful types of HID lamps are fluorescent, mercury-vapor, high-pressure
sodium, and metal-halide. All of these lamps are the same type of technology in that they operate by sending an electrical current between two metal electrodes and through a glass tube filled with inert gas resulting in the emission of visible light.
Modern lighting has continued to improve across the spectrum (incandescent, fluorescent, metal halide, LED, etc.). Thus far the most promising lights for the 21st century appear to be LEDs. Modern LEDs have a useful lifespan of 2-4 times that of their average competitor while producing high-quality light much more efficiently as well. For more information on LEDs, you can read here.
The more you learn,