The history of industrial and home lighting is nothing short of fascinating and mankind’s ability to harness the power of light was a powerful driver in society’s evolution over the ages. Without it, we would still be living according to the natural sun cycles – sleeping when dark, awake when bright, with very little flexibility in between.
The first ever lamp
We have to travel right back to around 70,000 BC to find the world’s first ever lamp. It was created by filling a shell, hollow rock or another natural object with moss, soaked with animal fat and then set alight. Humans rapidly became to imitate the natural shapes they found with metal, pottery and alabaster lamps for the very earliest forms of lighting. Later on, wicks were added to place control over the burn rate. By the seventh century BC, the Greeks were making terracotta lamps in place of their handhold torches. In fact, the very word ‘lamp’, is derived from the Greek, ‘lampas’, which means ‘torch’.
By the eighteenth century, lighting had progressed further, with the central burner. The fuel source could now be enclosed tightly in metal and an adjustable tube was employed to control the fuel burning intensity and the strength of the resulting light. Within the same period, small chimneys made of glass were added to oil lamps – both to protect the flame and also to control the air flow rate to the flame. A Swiss chemist, Ami Argand, is largely credited with first creating the principle of using oil lamps with circular, hollow wicks, covered by a glass chimney, back in 1783.
The early lighting fuels
Before electricity, the earliest fuels for lighting were beeswax, olive oil, sesame oil, whale oil, fish oil, nut oil and similar natural substances and these were used until late in the eighteenth century. However, the Chinese were a step ahead, using lined skins to collect natural gas and use it for their lighting.
By 1859, petroleum drilling had begun and kerosene lamps became very popular, being first introduced in Germany in 1853. Natural gas and coal lamps also become widely used – in fact, coal gas was being used for lighting fuel as far back as 1784.
By 1792, gas lighting was starting to be used commercially, when William Murdoch used coal gas to light his home in Cornwall. The German Investor, Friedrich Winsor was first to patent coal gas lighting, in 1804 and then in 1799, a type of wood-distilled gas was patented as the ‘thermolampe’. The first patent for the gas light was in 1810, in the US.
By the early nineteenth century, most cities in Europe and the US were using gaslights to illuminate their streets at night. This type of lighting became replaced with high-pressure mercury lights and low pressure sodium in the 1930s, then again being replaced by electric lighting in the nineteenth century, as this became the choice of home lighting and industry alike.