The Evolution of Artificial Lighting, Pt. 1
In the many tens of thousands of years preceding electricity, animal fats, oils, wicks, fuels, and gasses were just some of the substances used to create artificial lighting. Since then, our species has made great strides towards improving the way we illuminate our world, from the invention of the light bulb in the early 1800s to the increasingly more energy-efficient and convenient lighting of the 21st century, and we continue to refine our techniques to this day. Here are the key milestones in the development of manmade light, starting with pre-electrical lamps.
Part 1: Pre-Electrical Lamps
- 400,000 BC: Fire was intentionally kindled in the caves of Peking Man, China.
- 70,000 BC: Hollow rocks or shells were filled with moss and animal fat then burned.
- 10,000-15,000 BC: Oil lamps were invented.
- 200-500 BC: Candles were invented.
- 7 BC: Terracotta lamps replaced handheld torches.
- 900 AD: Kerosene lamps were invented.
Early artificial lighting was very much a global phenomenon, with origins all over Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. Remains show that fire was intentionally kindled in the caves of Peking Man as far back as 400,000 BC, and other evidence suggests that prehistoric people used natural materials such as hollow rocks or shells filled with moss and animal fat (which they then ignited) to create the first “lamps” at around 70,000 BC. It wasn’t until many thousands of years later, estimated to be between 6,000 and 4,500 BC, that humans in Egypt, India, Greece and Rome started to mimic these natural shapes with pottery, creating some of the first oil lamps with alabaster and other naturally occurring elements.
From that point, it wasn’t long before mankind began using candles with wicks, which allowed them to control the rate of burning, in China as well as parts of Europe in 200 and 500 BC, respectively. Later in the 7th century BC, Greeks started using terracotta lamps, clay-based, ceramic oil lamps that are more closed to prevent spilling, which eventually replaced handheld torches as they allowed light to be carried more safely. (In fact, the word “lamp” is actually derived from the Greek word “lampas,” meaning “torch.”) By 900 AD, artificial lighting had progressed to the point of kerosene lamps, which are even safer and allow for a greater degree of control than previous light sources, and they soon became popular in the Middle East.
After the kerosene lamp, lighting developments around the world continued for many centuries, though incrementally. Humans still used the same basic technology: fuel was burned and controlled with wicks, tubes, chimneys, vents, and the like, then placed in an attractive/practical housing. The next big milestone in artificial lighting wouldn’t truly occur until the realization that electricity could be harnessed for use in technology in 1831, as well as the subsequent creation of the first light bulb soon after. This is when lighting history begins to get really interesting.
Any thoughts concerning the development of pre-electrical lamps, or anything you’d like us to discuss in part 2? Let us know below in the comments or on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, LinkedIn, Pinterest, or Instagram!