Early Light Sources
Fire and Torchlights
For early humans, fire served as the first artificial light source. The discovery of fire over 400,000 years ago was a monumental innovation for humankind. Fire enabled light after sundown, providing illumination for activities as well as warmth and protection. The portability of fire led to the development of rudimentary torchlights made of sticks, rags, or resinous wood dipped in animal fat. Despite the fiery risk, torches enabled mobility and extended human activity into the night for the first time. The torch persistently evolved alongside civilization.
With the advent of pottery around 9000 BCE, enclosed oil lamps became popular light sources by 4500 BCE in Ancient Egypt, Babylon, and Persia. Early designs used plant or animal oils as fuel with a fiber wick which was lit to produce a steady flame. Some oils burnt cleaner like olive oil, while others like tallow and beeswax filtered some smoke. This offered better control than a naked fire, and the oil lamp quickly spread through ancient cultures as a more convenient portable light. Different fuels would be adopted based on regional availability, from fish oils in ancient China to whale oil for the Inuit peoples. Oil lamps remained ubiquitous into the 19th century.
Wax and tallow candles emerged around 3000 BCE in Egypt and were widely used by ancient cultures. Beeswax candles filtered out unpleasant smells and burning particles better than animal-fat candles, while also burning longer and brighter. Romans advanced wick design for a consistent burn. Candles provided a dependable and renewable indoor light source, remaining a staple into the 19th century before being supplanted by superior lighting. Candlemaking would evolve from laborious hand production to industrialized manufacture.
In the 18th century, William Murdoch and Philippe LeBon independently pioneered the use of flammable gas for lighting. Coal gas extracted from coal using heat was piped to street lamps and fixtures in factories, mills, lighthouses, and homes. Gas light enjoyed immense popularity in the 19th century and lit up cities with brilliant luminosity. But the risk of fire, explosions, and asphyxiation loomed. Still, gas lighting was over five times more efficient than candles or oil lamps. By the 1870s, over 300 gas companies operated in the U.S., until electric light emerged.
The first electric lamps in the 1800s used carbon arc lamps which produced light by an electric arc between carbon electrodes. This required high voltages and was mainly adopted for large-scale lighting. Arc lamps illuminated major spaces like factory buildings, public areas, and theatrical stages. But they emitted a harsh glare and fumes. Enclosed versions like the Yablochkov candle reduced the brightness. But arc lighting was limited by its lack of divisibility.
Thomas Edison’s 1879 invention of the incandescent light bulb revolutionized indoor lighting. Using a thin filament wire in a glass bulb filled with inert gas, electric current running through the filament would heat it until it glowed. Incandescent bulbs were compact, inexpensive to produce, and durable enough for mass adoption. The lightbulb became the primary electric indoor light source for the next century. Edison created the world’s first electric utility providing 110 volts of direct current to power lights in New York City.
Fluorescent and LEDs
Fluorescent lighting became a common alternative in commercial and institutional spaces in the 1930s, offering greater efficiency than incandescent bulbs. Fluorescent tubes used mercury vapor to emit UV light that caused a phosphor coating to glow. Beginning in the 1960s, innovations in LED technology produced increasingly efficient solid-state lighting. By the early 2000s, LEDs emerged as the new standard for energy savings, longevity, and versatility across lighting applications. Advancements in smart lighting continue to enhance control and connectivity.
The Future of Lighting
Lighting has undergone an immense evolution from early fire to today’s advanced electric technologies. Ongoing innovation promises even greater efficiency, quality, and functionality from new light sources, fixtures, and systems. Lighting will continue adapting to meet the demands of sustainability, human health, changing lifestyles, and future needs. The journey of lighting development marches forward through emerging smart cities, human-centric design, and connectivity with other systems and services. Lighting’s story will continue unfolding along with the story of human advancement.