A Spotlight On Lighting Throughout History
Cavemen discovered fire and used it mainly as a means to keep warm, but were fascinated with the power of light, telling stories with cave paintings and shadows. Since this turning point in history, humans have been fascinated with harnessing the power of light, evolving as both necessity and decoration.
Lighting In The Roman Era
The era of Roman rule in Europe was a rocky time. Say what you want about the Romans, they were responsible for some major technological advancements. Dipped style candles became popular in ancient Rome in around 500 BC and were made from tallow, a form of animal fat. There is also evidence to suggest that early candles were created from Whale fat in the Qin Dynasty from 221-206 BC.
Huge fireplaces, candles, flaming torches and rushlights were some of the lighting used throughout medieval times. It was called the dark ages due to the lack of information available from this era, but true to name, it was probable that poorer people were not able to affordably light their homes.
Rushlights were a type of candle made by soaking the dried pith of the rush plant in fat or grease, and was commonly used by poor folk during this time period, but did not provide much in the way of illumination.
A time famous for the elegant pointed arches and heraldic emblems seen on churches, monasteries, cathedrals and castles. Colourful stained glass windows were a common feature of gothic architecture, providing light during the day. However interior lighting during the night consisted of wrought iron chandeliers and wall sconces featuring many candles, widely used in churches and halls, but were not the most effective means of illumination.
The Tudor Period dated from 1485 to 1603 and during this time the royalty and middle classes in the UK became wealthier and more comfortable. Large stately homes featured many chimneys and fireplaces to accommodate family, servants and guests. Lighting during this period was largely similar to Gothic lighting but featured more elaborate fittings, including heraldic family crests crafted from metal and bronze. Beeswax candles were commonly used in chandeliers and wall sconces for the wealthier classes, while many of the poor were still using rush lighting.
The longest-serving Monarch in British history brought about a time of huge change. Britain became a world superpower and ruled over the largest empire in history encapsulating a quarter of the world’s population. The steam age brought about rapid advancements in sanitation, industrialisation and great wealth. Housing advanced rapidly during this time, with solid walls and large roofs made of brick, slate and terracotta.
At the start of Queen Victoria’s reign, most homes were lit by candles and oil lamps. Coal fires were an important feature in many homes, particularly the lower classes, used for many tasks such as heating baths and drying clothes. Decorative Chandeliers were a common feature in the wealthier homes, made from finely crafted brass with glass cases.
Queen Victoria was not fond of gas lights at first as she thought gas was smelly and unsafe. She was interested in technological advancements and finally agreed to use gas lighting in the new ballroom in Buckingham Palace. Despite a few problems including servants burning their hands and a rat infestation in the palace, Victoria like the idea of using gas lighting and went on to have it installed in Windsor Castle
During the Victorian era, Kerosene oil lamps (or paraffin lamps) became popular in homes. The portability and bright light source made them first choice over the alternative of using many candles. The prominent nursing figure Florence Nightingale, who helped to revolutionise hygiene in nursing environments in the 1800’s was famously known as ‘the lady with the lamp’ visiting the bedsides of wounded soldiers to offer nursing care by lamplight.
The first electricity generator in Britain was installed in 1881, in Godalming, Surrey. The following year the Electric Light Act was the first public measure that began dealing with the electricity supply. The 1926 Act created the Central Electricity Board, which set up the UK’s first synchronised, nationwide AC grid, with electricity becoming widespread across the country after this point.
American inventor Thomas Edison created a long-lasting electric light bulb in 1879 that would rival the gas lamp. After several much shorter-lived prototypes, Edison finally came across a carbonized bamboo filament that would burn for 1200 hours.
Incandescent bulbs like the one invented by Thomas Edison would go on to illuminate the lighting market until fluorescent lights were introduced commercially by Daniel McFarlan Moore in 1904. Although early fluorescent required higher voltage and different fitments, they were much more efficient and replaced incandescent bulbs until General Electric introduced the tungsten filament.
French engineer Georges Claude first demonstrated the use of neon lights at the Paris Motor Show in 1910. In 1923, Claude sold two neon signs to a Packard car dealership in Los Angeles for $24,000.
Shortly after this, neon signs began to pop up everywhere and became a popular fixture in outdoor advertising. The vibrant multicoloured signs were visible even in daylight, and became known throughout America as “liquid fire”.
Neon is created by filling glass tubes with a conductive gas like Argon or Mercury, which glows when an electric current is passed through it. As technology developed, certain ‘soft glass’ was used to make different shaped signs and different gases were discovered to emit different colours.
Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs)
Much more energy-efficient than traditional filament bulbs, the first LED was invented in 1961 by Robert Biard and Gary Pittman. Originally, this did not have practical use as it emitted infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye. The following year an LED was invented which produced visible red light, and rapid advancements in LED technology soon followed
In 1994, ultra-bright blue LEDs were invented by Shuji Nakamura using Gallium Nitride and began to see commercial manufacturing use. Current LED lights use 80 per cent less energy and last 25 times longer than their incandescent counterparts, manufactured at a similar cost.
Research into LED technology continues, with many modern appliances and innovations using LEDs, due to the low cost and versatility they offer.
The Future Of Lighting
As smart home systems, voice activation and motion-sensing technology become more common in our everyday lives, we are likely to see more of these systems incorporated into the home and workplace, with motion sensing lighting already common in some spaces, this is likely to become more widespread.
Human-Centred & Mood Lighting
Lighting has been shown to have an effect on health, for example, the blue light in phone screens restrains the production of melatonin, the hormone that controls your sleep/wake cycle or circadian rhythm. Future technology may help us understand how artificial lighting has an effect on our health and this may allow us to create lighting with less negative health benefits.
More attention will likely be focused around the colour, hue and brightness such as luminaire values, which studies have shown can improve the health and wellbeing of building occupants. As we learn more about how our body works, and understand that millions of years of evolution have tuned us to the natural rhythms of the sun, we can see how artificial lighting interferes with this process. The future will hopefully see us becoming more aware of this and using lighting to help stimulate creativity and focus in the daytime, and promote calm and restfulness in the evening.
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