The Quest for Light, part 1

Artificial light needs power but it is often those in power who have controlled our access to light.  In this part 1 of a two-part series, we explore the history of light and the relationship to the economic development of industrialized society.

The Hall of the Bulls

In the beginning, there was only day and night.  A diurnal existence for all organic life on earth.   Day brought vision, warmth, and facilitated hunting.  The night was cold and scary.  The skill to create fire was essential if humans were going to survive.  A fire took away the night chill and provided some ability to see nocturnal hunters searching for their own meal.    Then, around 15,000BC something amazing happened in southwestern France.  Prehistoric people began painting images of their world in cave systems, the most famous being Lascaux.   These paintings are primarily large animals, human figures, and abstract signs.  The most famous section of the cave system is called the Hall of the Bulls with the largest bull measuring over 17 feet long.  How do you paint underground?  Besides organic art supplies, one would need a light source.

If Cash is King, Light is the Queen

Most of us take light for granted.  We walk into a room and expect a light switch to be readily available to turn on the lights.  Today, in many buildings we can now simply walk into the room while an occupancy sensor turns the lights on for us.  We can also have Alexa turn the lights on and off with a voice command.  So why do we need the switch on the wall? Humans demand control over our environment so the switch is there to reassure us we can turn the lights on or off whenever we want.  Besides, Alexa isn’t all-knowing; she needs to communicate with a local device.

In ancient times, when the fire was the sole light source, it was inexpensive and readily available.  As long as you could find wood in the forest, you were able to build a campfire to ward off predators and cook dinner.  Noblemen would use serf labor to gather their wood, so it remained rather inexpensive.  This was a pretty good system and was even portable with the use of torches made from sticks and a cloth wick set ablaze.  This source was widely used by mobs inciting violence well into the 20th century.

But campfires and torches emitted a great deal of smoke (and odor) which was all good as long as you were outside or had a convenient chimney to evacuate the smoke.   Interior circulation spaces relied on the light from the main fireplace or small torches to light hallways and staircases, not always optimum.  Ancient civilizations fashioned handheld vessels with wicks and fuel from plants or insects.  We know from Jewish religious ceremonies that animal fat or oil was used as fuel two millennia ago.  But oil was expensive and available to only those with resources.  In other words, those with the cash could have light.

A Candle in the Wind

A major improvement in light sources came in the Middle Ages when beeswax candles were introduced.  While beeswax candles reduced the smoke and odor, these too, were expensive and generally only available to religious authorities and wealthy landowners.   An entire industry of candle-making artisans was also born.

The economies changed in the 19th century when the whaling industry was able to deliver spermaceti, a wax made by crystallizing sperm whale oil, in quantity.  In essence, it would appear the only purpose of the whaling industry was to sell the oil as a cheap illuminate and for making soap.  Just think about all the manpower, cost, and effort to create light.

At the same time, a Scottish chemist named James Young distilled oil from petroleum which was much less odorous thus saving the whales from extinction.  He was awarded a patent in 1850, nearly a decade prior to Edwin Drake’s oil well in Pennsylvania.  Drake wasn’t really the first to drill for oil, he just had better marketing.

Kerosene was still a flammable liquid with an open flame and many homes, barns, businesses, and a large portion of the City of Chicago when up in flames due to accidents with kerosene lanterns.  Much of a homemaker’s time was spent cleaning the soot from the interior walls and draperies.

Shifting economy

As far back as 500 BC, the Chinese used natural gas via bamboo pipes for light and heat, while Paris became the first city to incorporate gaslighting for public streets.  Coal had also been used as a fuel in ancient times but gained popularity during the Industrial Revolution for steam engines, heating, and electricity.

The economic impact of the widespread use of gaslighting meant that factories could now work extended hours, especially during winter months without relying on daylight or mitigating the danger of combustible fuels.   As the Industrial Revolution brought many great discoveries to society, gaslighting was eventually replaced by Tesla and Edison which is another whole saga.

The Quest for Light

The story of light is also the story of the development of modern civilization.  The Caves of Lascaux were painted in 15,000 BC requiring an artificial light source for the artists to document their world deep in the French landscape.  The ability to generate power and distribute light, in whatever form, is at the heart of every economic and social advancement over many centuries.  Light is not solely a convenience but impacts the way we perceive and enjoy our lives.  Light gives form to architecture and our environment.  Just as the campfire gave the ability of early man to ward off predators, light gives us the ability to experience and expand our world.