Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A Brief History of Light:


15,000 to 10,000 BCE - The oil lamp is invented. Rendered animal fat (cattle, hog, deer, whale, seal, etc.), or tallow, is used for the fuel. Although widely available in a variety of forms (stone, pottery, nutshell, seashell, bronze, eggshell), oil lamps produce huge amounts of black, sticky smoke and smell awful and thus are rarely used.

700 to 200 BCE - The candle is invented. Rendered animal fat is used to make them. They are just as smoky and foul-smelling as the oil lamp. Candles are also made from wax extracted from nuts, tree bark, spices, fish, and yak butter.

c. 650 CE - The beeswax candle is invented about this time. It burns cleanly and sweetly, but is extremely expensive.

c. 900 CE - Kerosene is invented in Persia. Surface petroleum is distilled at low temperature until clear, which leaves kerosene behind. Bitumen and shale are also heated to remove their oil, and the petroleum distilled to create kerosene. Although cheap, kerosene burns smokily and generally is not used indoors. Kerosene lighting is generally limited to areas with easy access to petroleum.

c. 1600 CE - The expanding European commercial whaling industry discovers the bowhead whale, whose corpse provides extremely large quantities of whale oil and blubber for lighting and fuel. More clean-burning and less-smelly then kerosene, whale oil becomes available for the first time as a lighting fuel -- although it remains expensive.

c. 1730 CE - The American whaling industry takes off, and for the next 100 years whale oil is the fuel of choice in the United States and western Europe. The success of American whalers allows whale oil lamps to become available to the upper middle class for the first time. "Peak oil" is reached in the 1830s, after which whales become so scarce that whale oil becomes too expensive for most people to use with any frequency. Most whale oil after 1840 is used for lubrication of industrial machinery. Whale oil as a lubricant ends about 1860.

1802 CE - Natural gas is used for the first time to light streets (in Cornwall, United Kingdom). Its use remains restricted to coal-bearing areas, where such gas is common, and to streets.

1812 CE - Coal gasification -- the distillation of coal to create natural gas -- is used for the first time on an industrial scale in the United Kingdom. (The process had only been discovered 18 years before in France.) Indoor lighting becomes cheap and clean enough to become widespread for the wealthy and middle class for the first time in human history. Coal gasification spreads to the United States in 1825. By the 1840s, indoor gas lighting is common in most major cities.

1852 CE - A method for distilling coal to generate a much cleaner-burning kerosene is discovered. The "oil boom" begins. The first commercial oil well is drilled in 1859 in Pennsylvania, ending the Russian monopoly on oil and dropping the price of kerosene dramatically. Indoor lighting for the poor (whose homes don't have expensive natural gas lines) becomes cheap and clean enough to make lighting widespread for the first time in human history.

1880 CE - Electric street lighting begins, replacing gas-fed street lights.

1924 CE - Cheap indoor electric lighting becomes common in almost every city and town and village in Europe and the U.S. Even remote rural areas are electrified by the end of the 1930s.

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