Facts That Figure: Lighting

Facts That Figure: Lighting

By: C.G. Hoffman

Chanukah, which is now behind us,  is all about light, whether it’s the light of the Chanukah flames or the light of holiness that we all try to hold onto within us to shine throughout the year. Light has shaped human development over the years, with increased access to light being the catalyst for more inventions that have shaped humanity in ways our ancestors couldn’t have dreamed of.

For millennia, man would rise with the sun and go to sleep with the sun. The sun is still the best source of light the world has ever known, and ancient architects built structures that would maximize the amount of daylight that would enter the building.

The first portable sources of light were torches, made of sturdy pieces of wood, with the ends wrapped in rags and dipped in flammable substances. Torches were often put into wall mounted sconces to serve as fixed lighting in caves and castles. They were also popularly used in processions and parades.

In ancient Rome, oil was the lighting fluid of choice. A slave, called a lanternarius, would be responsible for lighting the oil lamps in front of wealthy Roman villas every evening. Street lighting was commonplace throughout the Middle East, but was virtually unknown in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, making the moniker the “Dark Ages” not so inaccurate. “Linkboys” were commonly used in London, where a small boy holding a lit torch would escort people in the dark, for a few farthings. Or, if you were unlucky, he would escort you to a dark alley where you would be robbed by some of his accomplices.

In the Middle East, where olive oil was plentiful, small clay lamps were used for lighting homes. Archaeologists working in Israel have unearthed hundreds of these small clay lamps, which were used by Jews hiding in caves during the times of the Maccabees. They were shaped like a bowl, which held the olive oil, while a small spout at the side held a burning wick.

In Northern Europe, olive oil was an expensive commodity, so tallow candles were most commonly used for task lighting. The cheapest lighting was the rushlight; thin grasses or reeds were dipped in animal fat, producing a smoky, and quite smelly flame. Candlemakers, known as chandlers, had one of the most important jobs in a medieval village. They would go from house to house, collecting leftover cooking fat that diligent housewives had saved, and would make the family’s supply of candles from the reserved fat.

Beeswax candles burn with a clear, pleasant smelling flame, but they were a luxury mostly reserved for royalty, the nobility, and the church, as they were expensive to produce.

If you wanted to light up a large room, and you had the money for lots of candles, you would use a chandelier. Made of wood or metal, the first chandeliers were made to stand on the floor, and servants would shlep them from room to room as needed. They soon evolved into elaborate candleholders with many branches, and used a pulley system so that servants could lower them to trim the wicks and replace the candles.

With the arrival of glass lanterns, street lighting became more common. By the end of the 1600’s, Paris had more than 2,700 streetlights. By the early 1800’s, gas street lights were becoming commonplace, saving one mill owner as much as the cost of 1,500 candles each night!

Although Thomas Edison gets all the credit, he didn’t actually invent the first incandescent bulb, only his bulb was judged to be the best. What set him apart from other inventors, was that he continued to work on improving and commercializing his inventions, developing the Pearl Street Station for electricity in Manhattan, and also inventing the electric meter. By 1925, half of American homes had electric power. The world would never be the same again, as millions of night owls would attest.

The world of electric lighting continues to evolve at a galloping pace. Fluorescent lighting became popular in the mid 1900’s. Today, the incandescent bulb seems to be going the way of the clay oil lamp, giving way to newer, more energy efficient lights such as LED (light emitting diodes) lights.

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