For most of human history, generating light was a laborious hands-on task. That was until the arrival of electricity, which brought us illumination at the flick of a switch. But how exactly has this technology changed our everyday lives?
Lighting the pre-electric home
Before gas or electric lighting were invented, the greatest light source indoors usually came from the fixed fire in the grate. Home activities revolved around the hearth, with candlelight or oil lamps providing dim (but mobile) light around the home. Move an arm's length from the candle, however, and you couldn't read, draw or mend.
Home was (and still is) a dangerous place in the dark—full of trip hazards galore. Jonathan Swift's 1745 satirical parody Directions to Servants drolly instructs the butler to:
Save your master's candles. Never bring them up till half an hour after it be dark, tho' they be called for ever so often.
It's well worth a read to find out all the ways that 18th-century servants could plunge their employers into darkness with disastrous—and comic—effect.
While the rich used candles (probably made from beeswax or spermaceti wax extracted from the head of the sperm whale), others were not so fortunate. The less wealthy commonly lit their houses with stinking, smoky, dripping tallow candles which gave out very little light. The poor mostly used even feebler and fast-burning rushlights, usually dipped in smelly animal fat. The average 40cm rushlight only burned for about an hour.
Outdoors, without any strong illumination from street or building, there was a good reason why most people relied on moonlight and starlight to travel—as William Hogarth's 'Night' from his Four Times of Day series reveals.
His painting shows some of the hazards faced if you ventured from home in the dark, including a stagecoach colliding with a bonfire, and having a chamber pot emptied on you in the gloomy street.
Industry lights the way—from gas to electric
Despite significant advances benefitting the rich (such as a much brighter oil lamp with a circular wick developed by Ami Argand in 1780), real change in lighting our streets and homes only came when lighting technology began to develop on an industrial scale: first as gas lighting at the end of the 18th century and then as electric lighting from the mid-19th century onwards.
Most people first encountered these technologies not at home but in the street, or at work in the growing number of factories lit by night.
Gas lighting at home was increasingly popular among the middle classes in the 19th century, although it was usually frowned upon in bedrooms due to the unfortunate downsides of choking fumes, smoke, blackened walls and the risk of the odd explosion.
While gas provided relatively gentle illumination, the huge electric arc streetlamps which began appearing in the 1870s gave out an intense light.
Light was produced by an electric current which arced between two carbon rods—hence the name. The development of electric generators made them a practicable solution for lighting public spaces.
Gas light still produced a familiar flame, but artificially generated electric light was something altogether new and exciting. It was produced almost as if by magic, the visible outlet of invisible electricity—albeit, in the case of arc lamps, with a rather strong smell and some noise.
Arc lights could illuminate huge areas: those installed on towers in 1860s New York lit up the street and several blocks around with a blinding light'. Some were even used to light fields, enabling agricultural labourers to work into the night—a far cry from a harvest governed by light-related circadian rhythms.
Arc lamps weren't always welcomed. Robert Louis Stevenson wasn't alone in railing against the 'ugly blinding glare' of the new technology. He saw the electric streetlight as 'a lamp for a nightmare' compared to the 'biddable domesticated stars' provided by gaslight.
Given the intensity of these lights, it's unsurprising that they get extremely hot—the arc reaches several thousand degrees Celsius, and so the lamps needed to be placed at height and well out of reach.
No wonder, then, that arc lamps were far too powerful for the home. A new way was needed to produce less powerful electric light for indoors.
Inventing the incandescent light bulb
The invention of the eventual solution to electric domestic lighting—essentially, the incandescent lamp bulb we're familiar with today—took decades. The main challenges lay in making a durable filament that produced a bright and steady light, and creating the best possible vacuum inside the glass bulb to prolong the filament's life.
Early experimenters such as Joseph Swan began trialling materials to make a durable filament as early as the 1840s, although it wasn't until the 1870s that he and Thomas Edison most famously produced commercially viable lamp bulbs.
Swan's first successful bulbs used 'parchmentized thread' made from cotton as the filament. Inventors used all sorts of materials in their attempts to produce a useful filament, including carbon, platinum, carbonised bamboo and even carbonised human hair.
Once the electric lamp bulb was developed, it wasn't long before the spread of electrical generating plants made electric lighting in the home a viable alternative to messy gas. A domestic electricity supply was soon being touted to the (wealthy) consumer.
Although early bulbs were not powerful compared to today's ones, they still gave a much brighter interior than earlier gas and oil lamps. A whole world of glorious decorative lampshades, switches and bulbs resulted. Electric light sockets were also dual-purpose, conveniently used to power other small appliances such as early irons and toasters.
Electric light in the home—All grid and no grime
By the 1930s new homes in urban areas of Britain were being lit by electricity. It took time for the National Grid to roll out electricity to most of the country, but the number of homes wired up increased from 6% in 1919 to two thirds by the end of the 1930s.
Hailed as clean, convenient, progressive and modern (especially compared to gas, electricity suppliers would be at pains to tell the public), electric lighting at home was seen as aspirational.
Most lighting schemes were fairly minimal in scope, with perhaps one central light and a couple of wall lights or plug-in lamps. New task lighting for work and home, such as the classic Anglepoise lamp, played with modern, minimalist design.
Electric lamp stands made from plastics such as urea formaldehyde flaunted their cutting-edge materials and celebrated the new paler interior colours made possible by cleaner electric lighting.
Despite this, many homes had very little electric lighting, especially as it needed to be retrofitted to older buildings. There’s a lovely comic moment in the 2019 BBC production of Worzel Gummidge when two streetwise kids—sent to a farm in the countryside—try to light what they assume is an oil lamp in their bedroom with a match, only to see the farmer’s wife flick the electric light switch to turn it on.
While we smile at their assumption, it's a reminder that electricity is a relatively recent addition to the average British home, especially in more remote rural areas.
It's also a reminder that—despite its enormous impact—we take it for granted, with the odd wide-scale blackout usually fading fast from memory.
Alexa, turn down the lights
Lighting our homes, communities and cities today is more hi-tech than ever before. Streetlights are turned on and controlled remotely, while homes are lit up by the flick of a switch, AI voice command or even by remote control from work.
Traditional incandescent light bulbs are being phased out around the world and replaced by more energy-efficient halogen, LED and OLED alternatives—all producing more light for less energy input. Smart, efficient solar lamps like the Little Sun by artist Olafur Eliasson and engineer Frederick Ottensen, increasingly bring bright light to rural places and those without access to a reliable power supply.
In the home, lighting schemes have become ever more sophisticated. In his 2009 book 43 Principles of Home, designer Kevin McCloud describes the use of multiple types of lighting—task, ambient, directional and decorative—in the design of a 'good lighting scheme'. The lure to add ever-more light to our homes is hard to resist.
But what have we lost in our illuminated world? Walk around the edges of the suburbs at night and you'll never be plunged into complete darkness—the city glow or 'sky glow' is a constant presence on the horizon. An estimated 80% of the global population live with this sky glow. Its extent can be seen from space, with satellite images showing a brightly lit Earth.
The impact of light and light pollution on nature—humans included—needs more research. For example, while the move from traditional sodium vapour streetlights with their yellow glow to more energy efficient white LEDs sounds like a good thing, evidence shows that the extra UV light many of these give out disturbs wildlife.
Of course, too much lighting is a luxury that much of the global population doesn’t have. It’s time for a more thoughtful, considered use of lighting technologies, treating artificial light as the precious resource it is.
Find out more
- Paul Bogard, The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light, 2013
- Brian Bowers, Lengthening the Day: A History of Lighting Technology, 1998
- Mark Boyle, The Way Home: Tales From a Life Without Technology, 2019
- Jane Brox, Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light, 2011
- Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Disenchanted Night: The Industrialization of Light in the Nineteenth Century, 1992
- A. Roger Ekirch, At Day's Close: A History of Nighttime, 2013
- Science and Industry Museum blog, Five vintage light bulbs
- Science Daily, Putting animals in their best light: Some shades of LED lamps threaten wildlife
- Our World in Data, Artificial Light
- National Museum of American History, Bumping into new technologies: Hey, that's not what a light bulb is supposed to look like!
- NASA Visible Earth, Earth's City Lights