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Early Lighting

To the best of our archaeological knowledge, the first attempt at man-made lighting occurred about 70,000 years ago. The first lamp was invented made of a shell, hollowed-out rock, or other similar non-flammable object which was filled with a combustible material (probably dried grass or wood), sprinkled with animal fat (the original lighter fluid) and ignited.

Ancient Oil Lamp

As time passed, materials such as pottery and alabaster were used. Wicks were added to the lamp to control the rate of burning. Around the 7th century BC, the Greeks started making terra cotta lamps to replace handheld torches. In fact, the word lamp is derived from the Greek word lampas meaning torch.

Lamp developments continued but still used the same basic technology - control the burning of a fuel (natural oils, waxes, and the like) with wicks, tubes, chimneys, vents, and other similar devices, and put it in an attractive and/or practical housing.

Centuries would pass before the next big thing in lighting would be developed.

The First Electric Lamp

The first electric lamp was the carbon-arc lamp, demonstrated in 1801 by Sir Humphrey Davy, an English chemist. Electric lights became popular only after the incandescent lamp was developed independently by Sir Joseph Swan in England and Thomas Edison in the United States. The latter patented his invention in 1880 and subsequently made it the commercial success that it is today.

Portrait of Thomas Edison, 1893. http://www.nps.gov/edis/images/14915001.jpg

Above Thomas Edison, 1893

The Sun

Above The sun has been the primary source of light for humans for over 200,000 years. 


Lighting is not just about the source itself. There is always some sort of fixture or luminaire to house the light source and there must be a way to control the light, either by turning it on or off or adjusting the output. Those ancient shells, rocks, pottery, and terra cotta from which flames emitted were actually the first crude light fixtures or luminaires.

Later, throughout the 19th century and the early 20th century when gas lighting was popular, there needed to be ways to house the flame for aesthetic, visual, and safety reasons such as controlling the flame and the resulting brightness.

Gaslight Fixtures

A gaslight fixture

Gaslight fixtures were ornate and decorative whether they were used outdoors or indoors. Echoing the design themes of the times, they integrated well into contemporary architecture. Strangely enough, even while the incandescent lamp was gaining ground, new developments in the gaslight continued.

Let's take a look at some more milestones in lighting in the 20th century.

The Electric Light Bulb

Thomas Edison & his electric light bulb

In Edison's time, electric lights were already being used, but they were messy, expensive, noisy, too bright, and generally impractical. The electric arc lights could only be used outdoors. People still used gas lights and candles to light their homes and offices. Many inventors across the world were trying to find a better way to make light using electricity.

In 1860, English inventor Sir Joseph Wilson Swan created the first electric light bulb. The inventor's bulb could not really be used yet because the filament burned up too quickly. Swan periodically improved his invention and gave the world's first bulb light demonstration in 1878. Unfortunately for him, the bulb was still not practical because of the short life of the filament.

In 1878, Edison proclaimed that his company would create the first practical light bulb. It would be the invention that would take the most time and experimentation of all his creations. He used Lewis Latimer's carbon filament to make a bulb grow brighter and last longer. Edison's company installed a glass-blowing shed at the lab to make the bulbs. Edison had people send material from all over the world to try to use in the bulb.

That year, Edison and his team of scientists finally found the answer. "The Wizard" received a patent and began work on more devices to make the light bulb usable for the general public. Included with his 300 other inventions relating to the light bulb are generators, cables, switches, fuses, and sockets. His bulbs were first installed on a steamship and in a New York City factory. Edison Electric set up the first power station, a building that generates and controls electricity for an entire area.

Swan's original low-voltage, high-current invention is still used in flashlights and used in automobiles. And Edison is still considered the inventor of the light bulb because he made it useful.

Edison's Legacy
Edison developed more inventions than almost anyone. And besides creating, Edison continued improving his own and other people's inventions throughout his lifetime. Even before he died in 1931, "Edison's Pioneers" was created. This select group of scientists worked to keep Edison's ideas alive. 

Source GE Lighting