Before man created artificial light, the day pretty much ended when the sun went down, and with that came all the beliefs and superstitions that belonged to the darkness of night. Of course, fire was the first form of light used by man but it was a dangerous application and, undoubtedly, caused many unexpected conflagrations. The discovery that animal or vegetable fat could be used as a fuel was the first discovery that made the creation of light somewhat easier than creating light from a fire, which was normally, initially intended as a cooking or warming fire. The first torch would have been a simple burning stick but with the fat as fuel, the end of the stick could be wrapped with dry vines or other such natural materials, soaked with the melted fat as fuel and, voila, light that could last for a longer period of time. Eventually, it was discovered that the fats could be put in a vessel of some sort and a wick added to the mix and a more convenient form of light was possible. As with most all new forms of innovation, the rudimentary lighting technology was used only by the wealthy, or if fuel was quite abundant; because the fuel was also able to be used as a food source. This form of light also had to be continually tended, and it also created smoke, soot and bad odors, and, as previously mentioned, untold number of fires. The fire issue was such a frightening thing that could cause so much loss of life and property that in many medieval cities it was a requirement that all cooking fires were to be extinguished after dinner because if a fire were to start, an entire city might become engulfed due to the lack of any great firefighting ability. For most the people of that time in history, the dinner cooking fire was the only form of light they had, so after dinner, the light was gone.
Candles, of one sort or another, are one of man’s earliest creations and the evolution of them is difficult to completely trace but it is known that they have been in use for more than 5000 years. The first known use is credited to the Egyptians, who first developed what are known as rushlights. These were simply torches which were made from reeds which had their pithy cores soaked with melted fats, and as such are not truly candles because they had no wick. In about 3000 BC Egyptians did create a true form of candle which was made from beeswax and contained a wick. It took a while but they are also credited with the earliest candle holders, which were developed around 400 BC and were made of clay. The Chinese created candles around 221 BC and they were made of whale fat. Also, in China and Japan, wax derived from seeds and insects was wrapped in paper and burned for light. In India, it was discovered that a sort of wax could be created by boiling the fruit of the cinnamon tree. This was then used in the making of candles, which were first, generally, used to provide lighting for temples. In an even more interesting and almost bizarre form of lighting, in the first century AD, indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest actually used a local fish as a form of candle. The eulachon, or candlefish was simply dried, stuck on a stick and lit on fire. Nice and easy!
The Romans made the first candles that resemble the candles we know today. The tallow, fat from cows or sheep, became the standard throughout Europe for making candles. The stuff was very smoky and it smelled bad but that was all forgiven for the light produced. It has been determined that by the year 1415, streets in European cities were being lit with tallow candles. Tallow candles were the main source of light for most people in Europe and this made rise to candle makers who, starting in the 13th century, would travel from house to house making candles from the cooking fats saved by the residents, specifically for the candle making process. Even though beeswax candles had been developed, the beeswax was somewhat limited in quantity, making them quite costly. They were quite an improvement over the tallow candles because the wax burned clean and even had a pleasant scent. Scents were later added to the wax for an unending form of nice smelling light. Many, many candle materials and candle making processes were developed over the centuries, until it was finally discovered that paraffin – the waxy substance refined from petroleum – could be used to make high quality candles at a very economical price. All the aspects of using paraffin were huge improvements over previous candle materials; it burned with a nice bluish-white color, was odorless, and was plentiful. Once the one drawback of a low melting temperature was corrected by adding stearic acid to the paraffin, it pretty much became the candle we know today.
In the early 1800’s the experimentation of piped coal gas as a fuel for lights was in progress. Arguably, the first such use was in 1807, when German born inventor, Friedrich Winzer installed 13 lamps along Pall Mall in London. Various other such projects were taking place in other places in Europe and America. The first city in America to be lit by gas was Baltimore, in 1816. This coal gas lighting was used mainly for street lights and some other commercial lighting. The candle industry was still going strong as the main supplier of lighting for the majority of the world but it started to take a big hit soon after the distillation of kerosene allowed for the development of kerosene lanterns in the 1860’s. These lamps were quite the improvement over previous forms of lighting. They were safer, more efficient, and more controllable than earlier forms of oil lamps. They had a wick which was fed by the kerosene fuel through capillary action, and the brightness of the light could be controlled by simply raising or lowering the wick, creating a larger or smaller flame. The brightness, cleanliness and steadiness of the flame was also enhanced by the installation of a glass chimney, which became a more highly used accessory than was previously used on earlier oil lamps. No inventor of the kerosene lamp is known but literally hundreds of patents were applied for in the name of improvements. All the previous lighting methods were soon to be greatly improved in every form and fashion by the tinkerers who first discovered that electricity could be used to strike an arc of light across two conductors to create the first form of light from electricity. This first occurred sometime between 1800 and 1809 (the date is, obviously, unknown for sure), when Sir Humphrey Davy, an English chemist, used charcoal sticks and a bevy of rudimentary batteries (DC electricity) to create the first known experiment of light created by an arc lamp. That and the later invention of the light bulb were soon to change the world.
This blog is a multi-part writing which will touch on the evolution of artificial lighting and will be continued in the upcoming weeks. In the meantime, if you need help with your LED lighting projects, please feel free to call Polar-Ray at 303-494-5773 and speak with a lighting consultant.