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The Evolution of Artificial Lighting, Pt. 2

The Evolution of Artificial Lighting, Pt. 2

In Part 1 we discussed the origins of pre-electrical lamps, which can be traced back to intentional fires in 400,000 BC, and we concluded with the popularization of kerosene lamps in 900 AD. For hundreds of years since then, only incremental developments were made in manmade lighting; street lamps began to be used in the year 1000, and the 1700s were marked with small improvements to oil lamps and gas lights. However, it was the invention of the light bulb in the 1800s—along with the realization that electricity could be harnessed for use in technology—that propelled artificial lighting to where it is today. In Part 2, we discuss the game-changing discovery of electrical lighting, ending with the invention of the first practical-use incandescent light bulb.

Part 2: Early Electrical Lighting (19th Century)

  • 1800-1803: Sir Humphry Davy created the first electric lamp: the carbon arc lamp.
  • 1831: Michael Faraday, student of Humphrey Davy, created the electric dynamo.
  • 1841: Arc-lighting used as experimental public lighting in Paris.
  • 1856: Glassblower Heinrich Geissler confined the electric arc in a Geissler tube.
  • 1867: Alexandre Becquerel demonstrated the first fluorescent lamp.
  • 1879-1880: Thomas Edison patented a carbon-thread incandescent lamp that  lasted 40 hours. He officially demonstrated it to the public later that year in Menlo Park. In 1880, he produced a commercially viable bulb with a carbonized bamboo filament that lasted over 1200 hours.
  • 1887:Nikola Tesla invented an induction motor that ran on alternating current.
  • 1889: Edison formed the Edison General Electric Company; headquartered it in Nela Park, Ohio.
Carbon Arc Lamp
Carbon Arc Lamp

Many believe that Thomas Edison invented the world’s first light bulb back in 1879. However, this is actually not the case. Edison may have created the first practical-use incandescent lamp, but the first electric lamp was invented nearly 80 years prior by Sir Humphry Davy, an English chemist. Davy’s carbon arc lamp produced light through an electric arc passing through the air between two carbon rods. Although the first carbon arc lamps emitted over 10000 lumens and were 1000 times brighter than candles, they weren’t practical enough for widespread use; they were messy, expensive, noisy, too bright, and could only be used outdoors. Because of this, inventors across the globe raced to find better ways to make light using electricity.

But the development of more advanced lighting had to coincide with basic power generation developments. In 1831, Michael Faraday (a student of Davy’s) discovered electromagnetic induction, the principle behind the electric transformer and generator, which solved the problem of creating electric current in an ongoing and practical way. His findings were crucial to modern-day lighting because it allowed electricity to be transformed from a curiosity into a powerful new technology. From his discovery, batteries, generators and power conditioning technology were developed, allowing arc lamps to become more sophisticated. Eventually, these basic power generation methods, combined with scientists’ continued efforts to come up with new designs for electrical lighting, aided the creation of thefirst practical fluorescent, mercury vapor, and even incandescent lamps.

Geissler Tube
Geissler Tube

In 1856, another great milestone for artificial lighting occurred when glassblower Henreich Geissler invented the Geissler tube. The Geissler tube was an early gas-discharge tube that served as the precursor to fluorescent and neon lights. Due to its artistic design, the Geissler tube was primarily used for education and entertainment throughout the 1800s, but it evolved in 1867 into early fluorescent lighting when Alexandre Becquerel applied thin coatings of luminescent materials to the inner surfaces of the tube. Unfortunately, Becquerel’s fluorescent tubes were inefficient and had short lifespans, and they were later perfected to the standards of modern fluorescent lamps in 1934 by researchers at General Electric.

Edison Bulb

Edison Bulb

Meanwhile in 1878, Thomas Edison set out to create an electric light which he hoped would compete with gas and oil-based lighting. While earlier inventors (like Davy) had previously created electric lights, they were commercially impractical. Edison’s goals were to get incandescent lights down to an economically manageable size, to be less expensive, and to draw a low amount of current. On October 22, 1879, Edison and his laboratory assistants successfully produced such a light bulb which burned for 40 hours, and shortly thereafter, Edison patented the carbon-thread incandescent lamp. Just after the patent was granted, Edison found that using a carbonized bamboo filament could  make his lamp last even longer at over 1,200 hours, which would finally be efficient enough for practical use. Six years later, Nikola Tesla popularized alternating current, which would become commonplace by 1896. And in 1889, Edison formed the Edison General Electric Company, thereby kick-starting the indoor lighting revolution.

With this, we conclude our recap on 19th century electrical lighting. Excited to learn about the origins of energy-efficient, modern artificial lighting? Check back next week for Part 3: Modern Lighting!

Is there anything in particular you’d like us to discuss in Part 3? Let us know below in the comments or on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, LinkedIn, Pinterest or Instagram!

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