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FEATURED: Lighting Through The Ages Report:For most of human history, generating light was a laborious hands-on task. That was until the arrival of electricity, which brought us illumination at the flick of a switch. But how exactly has this technology changed our everyday lives? #AceHistoryDesk report

#AceHistoryReport – June.25: Before gas or electric lighting were invented, the greatest light source indoors usually came from the fixed fire in the grate. Home activities revolved around the hearth, with candlelight or oil lamps providing dim (but mobile) light around the home. Move an arm’s length from the candle, however, and you couldn’t read, draw or mend:

Kindness & LoveX❤️ says …..In the beginning God said let there be light and there was light and so began lighting our world from the flickering of candles to gas lightning in homes that were part of my childhood before Electric Lights became the norm and now we are heading for removing all bulbs that are not LED in a move that one day may lead to Greenwashing as l provided in this recent report so what’s next when our creator began it all with communication within humanity Amen


Home was (and still is) a dangerous place in the dark—full of trip hazards galore. Jonathan Swift’s 1745 satirical parody Directions to Servants drolly instructs the butler to:

Save your master’s candles. Never bring them up till half an hour after it be dark, tho’ they be called for ever so often.

It’s well worth a read to find out all the ways that 18th-century servants could plunge their employers into darkness with disastrous—and comic—effect. 

While the rich used candles (probably made from beeswax or spermaceti wax extracted from the head of the sperm whale), others were not so fortunate. The less wealthy commonly lit their houses with stinking, smoky, dripping tallow candles which gave out very little light. The poor mostly used even feebler and fast-burning rushlights, usually dipped in smelly animal fat. The average 40cm rushlight only burned for about an hour. 

Whale oil lamp made of pewter with a single wick, c.1840Science Museum Group Collection: Whale oil lamp made of pewter with a single wick, c.1840Iron rushlight holder mounted on a stone base, Eastern ScotlandScience Museum Group Collection: Iron rushlight holder mounted on a stone base, Eastern Scotland

Outdoors, without any strong illumination from street or building, there was a good reason why most people relied on moonlight and starlight to travel—as William Hogarth’s ‘Night’ from his Four Times of Day series reveals. 

His painting shows some of the hazards faced if you ventured from home in the dark, including a stagecoach colliding with a bonfire, and having a chamber pot emptied on you in the gloomy street. 

Print of an oil painting showing a street at night
Night (The Four Times of Day), William Hogarth, 1738. 
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (CC0 1.0)Image sourcefor Print of an oil painting showing a street at night


19th century lamplighter
The Costume of Great Britain: Lamplighter by WH Pyne, 1808. 
Science Museum Group Collection

Despite significant advances benefitting the rich (such as a much brighter oil lamp with a circular wick developed by Ami Argand in 1780), real change in lighting our streets and homes only came when lighting technology began to develop on an industrial scale: first as gas lighting at the end of the 18th century and then as electric lighting from the mid-19th century onwards. 

Most people first encountered these technologies not at home but in the street, or at work in the growing number of factories lit by night.

Gas lighting at home was increasingly popular among the middle classes in the 19th century, although it was usually frowned upon in bedrooms due to the unfortunate downsides of choking fumes, smoke, blackened walls and the risk of the odd explosion. 

While gas provided relatively gentle illumination, the huge electric arc streetlamps which began appearing in the 1870s gave out an intense light.

Light was produced by an electric current which arced between two carbon rods—hence the name. The development of electric generators made them a practicable solution for lighting public spaces.

Arc lamp with mechanism controlled by electromagnet.
Late 19th-century arc lamp. You can see the two carbon rods on the right-hand side in this picture.
Science Museum Group CollectionImage sourcefor Arc lamp with mechanism controlled by electromagnet.

Gas light still produced a familiar flame, but artificially generated electric light was something altogether new and exciting. It was produced almost as if by magic, the visible outlet of invisible electricity—albeit, in the case of arc lamps, with a rather strong smell and some noise. 

Arc lights could illuminate huge areas: those installed on towers in 1860s New York lit up the street and several blocks around with a blinding light’. Some were even used to light fields, enabling agricultural labourers to work into the night—a far cry from a harvest governed by light-related circadian rhythms. Diorama of an early electrically lit street outside the Royal Exchange, London, in 1881Science Museum Group Collection: Diorama of an early electrically lit street outside the Royal Exchange, London, in 1881

Arc lamps weren’t always welcomed. Robert Louis Stevenson wasn’t alone in railing against the ‘ugly blinding glare’ of the new technology. He saw the electric streetlight as ‘a lamp for a nightmare’ compared to the ‘biddable domesticated stars’ provided by gaslight. 

Given the intensity of these lights, it’s unsurprising that they get extremely hot—the arc reaches several thousand degrees Celsius, and so the lamps needed to be placed at height and well out of reach. 

No wonder, then, that arc lamps were far too powerful for the home. A new way was needed to produce less powerful electric light for indoors.


The invention of the eventual solution to electric domestic lighting—essentially, the incandescent lamp bulb we’re familiar with today—took decades. The main challenges lay in making a durable filament that produced a bright and steady light, and creating the best possible vacuum inside the glass bulb to prolong the filament’s life. 

Early experimenters such as Joseph Swan began trialling materials to make a durable filament as early as the 1840s, although it wasn’t until the 1870s that he and Thomas Edisonmost famously produced commercially viable lamp bulbs.

Very early incandescent electric lamp made by Thomas Alva Edison, 1879. This lamp has a single loop of carbon which glowed when a current flowed through it.More about this object

Swan’s first successful bulbs used ‘parchmentized thread’ made from cotton as the filament. Inventors used all sorts of materials in their attempts to produce a useful filament, including carbon, platinum, carbonised bamboo and even carbonised human hair. 


Early light bulb on a wooden base

Early carbon and rod filament incandescent electric lamp by Sir Joseph Wilson Swan, England, 1878-1879.Science Museum Group Collection

An early Edison bulb from 1879 with platinum clamps to hold the filament (which has broken). Science Museum Group

Very early Swan lamp with a detachable ‘candlestick’ cap from his Benwell lamp factory, c.1879. The filament was broken during a wartime raid on a pub on the Isle of Sheppey in 1940. Science Museum Group

Swan's electrical workshop, Newcastle

Swan’s electrical workshop in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, 1881. Bulbs and shades like these were installed by Swan in Sir William Armstrong’s residence, Cragside—the second private home (after Swan’s) to be lit by incandescent electric lighting. Science Museum Group Collection

Samples of incandescent lamp filaments

Samples of incandescent lamp filaments from the Edison & Swan United Electric Light Co, late 19th-centuryScience Museum Group Collection

Once the electric lamp bulb was developed, it wasn’t long before the spread of electrical generating plants made electric lighting in the home a viable alternative to messy gas. A domestic electricity supply was soon being touted to the (wealthy) consumer.

Although early bulbs were not powerful compared to today’s ones, they still gave a much brighter interior than earlier gas and oil lamps. A whole world of glorious decorative lampshades, switches and bulbs resulted. Electric light sockets were also dual-purpose, conveniently used to power other small appliances such as early irons and toasters.


By the 1930s new homes in urban areas of Britain were being lit by electricity. It took time for the National Grid to roll out electricity to most of the country, but the number of homes wired up increased from 6% in 1919 to two thirds by the end of the 1930s.

Hailed as clean, convenient, progressive and modern (especially compared to gas, electricity suppliers would be at pains to tell the public), electric lighting at home was seen as aspirational. 

Electricity pylon being erected in a field
Electricity pylon being erected, 1920s. 
Science Museum Group Collection

Most lighting schemes were fairly minimal in scope, with perhaps one central light and a couple of wall lights or plug-in lamps. New task lighting for work and home, such as the classic Anglepoise lamp, played with modern, minimalist design.

Electric lamp stands made from plastics such as urea formaldehyde flaunted their cutting-edge materials and celebrated the new paler interior colours made possible by cleaner electric lighting. 


Green book cover with gold lampshade design

Cover of The Electric Light in Our Homes by electrical engineer Robert Hammond, 1884. The cover features cutting-edge lamp bulbs by four inventors: Swan, Lane Fox, Swinburne and Edison.Science Museum Group Collection

Victorian drawing room with electric lights

Photograph of a Victorian drawing room lit by four electric wall lights, from Hammond’s 1884 book.Science Museum Group Collection

Pear-shaped light bulb

Clear glass light bulb with decorative pattern, c.1910Science Museum Group Collection

1950s advertising photo showing various styles of pendant lampshade

1950s advertising shot showing various styles of pendant lampshade. Many of these styles are fashionable today.Science Museum Group Collection

Original design Anglepoise lamp, c.1935 Science Museum Group

Despite this, many homes had very little electric lighting, especially as it needed to be retrofitted to older buildings. There’s a lovely comic moment in the 2019 BBC production of Worzel Gummidge when two streetwise kids—sent to a farm in the countryside—try to light what they assume is an oil lamp in their bedroom with a match, only to see the farmer’s wife flick the electric light switch to turn it on. 

While we smile at their assumption, it’s a reminder that electricity is a relatively recent addition to the average British home, especially in more remote rural areas. 

It’s also a reminder that—despite its enormous impact—we take it for granted, with the odd wide-scale blackout usually fading fast from memory.


Lighting our homes, communities and cities today is more hi-tech than ever before. Streetlights are turned on and controlled remotely, while homes are lit up by the flick of a switch, AI voice command or even by remote control from work. 

Traditional incandescent light bulbs are being phased out around the world and replaced by more energy-efficient halogen, LED and OLED alternatives—all producing more light for less energy input. Smart, efficient solar lamps like the Little Sun by artist Olafur Eliasson and engineer Frederick Ottensen, increasingly bring bright light to rural places and those without access to a reliable power supply. 

Sunflower-shaped light and packaging on a black background
‘Little Sun’ solar lamp by Olafur Eliasson and Frederik Ottensen. 
Science Museum Group Collection

In the home, lighting schemes have become ever more sophisticated. In his 2009 book 43 Principles of Home, designer Kevin McCloud describes the use of multiple types of lighting—task, ambient, directional and decorative—in the design of a ‘good lighting scheme’. The lure to add ever-more light to our homes is hard to resist.

But what have we lost in our illuminated world? Walk around the edges of the suburbs at night and you’ll never be plunged into complete darkness—the city glow or ‘sky glow’ is a constant presence on the horizon. An estimated 80% of the global population live with this sky glow. Its extent can be seen from space, with satellite images showing a brightly lit Earth. 

The impact of light and light pollution on nature—humans included—needs more research. For example, while the move from traditional sodium vapour streetlights with their yellow glow to more energy efficient white LEDs sounds like a good thing, evidence shows that the extra UV light many of these give out disturbs wildlife.

Of course, too much lighting is a luxury that much of the global population doesn’t have. It’s time for a more thoughtful, considered use of lighting technologies, treating artificial light as the precious resource it is.  



  • Paul Bogard, The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light, 2013
  • Brian Bowers, Lengthening the Day: A History of Lighting Technology, 1998
  • Mark Boyle, The Way Home: Tales From a Life Without Technology, 2019
  • Jane Brox, Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light, 2011
  • Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Disenchanted Night: The Industrialization of Light in the Nineteenth Century, 1992
  • A. Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: A History of Nighttime, 2013


#AceHistoryDesk report ………Published: Jun.25: 2021:

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