Turn on the light
Today we just flick a switch, but it wasn't that easy to create light on demand in the past.
If you've ever been camping you know how nice it is to have a campfire at night. It keeps you warm, cooks your food, and gives light so you don't trip over anything. Fire was the earliest source of light for humans, and for centuries fire in different forms lighted the way.Skip to next paragraph
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While the cooking fire also lighted their dwellings, people soon learned to make a portable light source, a torch. The first torches were probably sticks tied together and lighted on one end. Later, people learned to soak rags in oil (vegetable oil or animal fat - petroleum wasn't widely used until the 1860s) and tie them to the end of the stick to make a longer-lasting light source. The oil soaked into the rag through a process called capillary action, where a liquid seeps into the tiny spaces in fiber or thread. This action proved very useful in the next big development in making light - the wick.
Around 70,000 BC, people began using lamps. The first lamps were probably hollow rocks or shells filled with moss or something else that soaked up animal fat. As people developed pottery, they created lamps with a bowl and a spout. The oil was held in the bowl while a wick placed in the spout drew - through capillary action - oil along the spout where it burned. While most of the flame came from the burning oil, the wick gradually burned as well. Lamps were often made of clay or bronze, but sometimes were made of gold, silver, glass, or stone. Handles were soon added to make them easier to carry. Lids were added to keep the oil clean.
The next great lighting improvement came with the development of the candle. Light on a string has long been used in Africa, where oily nuts were strung on twigs and burned to make light. Around 3000 BC the Phoenicians and Etruscans began using wax candles, coating the string with tallow (animal and vegetable fat) to form a cylinder. Capillary action works even uphill, so the string would pull melted wax upward from the top of the candle toward the flame.
Beeswax candles became an important source of light in the Middle Ages. Oil lamps tended to be smoky and could quickly make lighting a room unpleasant. Beeswax candles were expensive, though, so families often relied on the cooking fire to light their homes.
The early Chinese and Japanese got their candle wax from insects and seeds. In India, candles used in temples were made from wax skimmed from boiling cinnamon. The earliest "candles" in North America were used by native Americans during the first century. An oily fish was wedged into a forked stick and ignited. American colonists discovered that a sweet-smelling candle wax could be made by boiling the berries of bayberry bushes. It was a tedious process, however, as it takes 1-1/2 quarts of bayberries to make a candle.
During the 18th century, Swiss chemist François-Pierre Ami Argand made a number of improvements to the oil lamp. In 1783 he created a hollow wick that provided more air for the inside of the flame. Then he created a glass cylinder that worked as a chimney to improve the airflow outside the flame. The increased flow of oxygen made the flame burn more brightly. He also invented a way to raise and lower the wick to change the size of the flame. The Argand lamp holds a special place in the history of education. Can you guess why? It produced enough light for people to be able read at night. This brought many opportunities for those who had to work all day but still wanted to learn.
The next major step in lighting was gaslight, which burned manufactured natural gas instead of oil. Some of the first gaslights were installed in 1806 in a cotton mill in Manchester, England. By 1830, thousands of gas lamps were in use in London. Moving carriages, including those in the London Underground, carried a gas supply in bags on the roof. Gas produced a more even light than candles or oil lamps, but they had a tendency to explode when not handled carefully. Inventors kept looking for a better light source.
In 1809, English chemist Humphrey Davy created the first arc lamp. He used a powerful battery to "jump" a current across two charcoal strips held slightly apart. The current produced a bright light that eventually consumed the charcoal strips. Arc lamps are bright - too bright, in fact. Women hid behind their umbrellas to avoid them. Too bright for indoor use, they were a good source of street lighting well into the 20th century.