From Prometheus’ mythical gift of fire to bulbs that dim at the touch of a dial, lighting has a long – and rather eclectic – history. It’s almost inconceivable nowadays, a world without lighting. But it wasn’t too long ago that we were relying on gas lamps, and before that simple candles and fires to light our way and make the dark a little less ominous.
So how did we get here?
The dark ages
Otherwise reliant on only the moonlight, our enterprising ancestors most likely crafted makeshift lamps out of shells or hollow rocks stuffed with dried grass and animal fat way back in prehistory, around 70,000 BCE. Those flickering flames may not have held a candle to modern torches, but they were enough to provide a little comfort in the night, and likely ward off predators. A little later in ancient Egypt and China, saucers were fashioned out of pottery or bronze to support a central wick, which controlled how quickly the fire burnt. Later still, the Romans lit their paths with closed terracotta lamps while larger, more complicated metal designs were used in circuses and forums. Rather outsmarted by their Roman forebears, lights in Medieval England were similar to the saucers of ancient Egypt. It wasn’t truly until the 1700s that we really got our acts together!
Fuelling the fire
In fact, right up until the end of the 18th Century, we were burning oils for light and warmth: olive oil, tallow, beeswax and whale oil were all popular choices. But there had been a revolution by the turn of the century. Coal gas had begun to be used in lights, and though it was deemed unsafe, it quickly became the popular form of streetlight. First demonstrated on our very own Pall Mall in London in early 1807, England had lit a torch: would the rest of the world follow suit? As it turned out, they would. By 1816, Baltimore had lit up its streets, becoming the first city in the US with gas-powered street lamps. Just a year later, Paris joined them, lighting the Passage des Panoramas.
The lightbulb moment: making the switch from gas to electric
As fate would have it, gas lamps didn’t last all that long relative to their more basic ancestors – although you’ll still be able to find them in cities all over the world, including corners of London and Warsaw. The popularity of gas lighting took a steep turn when, in 1880, Thomas Edison established the light bulb as we know it. Now, Edison didn’t come up with the idea of electric light bulbs, though he is often credited with it. Several inventors over the decades before him had produced working prototypes, but they were often hampered by the technology of the time or the expense of the materials they were using. Edison’s invention brought together affordable materials and the longevity and brightness that would make using electric lights so much more convenient than their gas counterparts.
The glow up: LED lighting and the future
Though iterations of Edison’s bulb – now with a tungsten filament – are still available to this day, many people are moving towards the use of LEDs: light-emitting diodes. That’s because they’re significantly more energy-efficient than their incandescent counterparts – about 90% more, in fact. Using less electricity to light your home is not only economical but much more sustainable too. Plus, there’s no reason to worry that you have to be stuck with ugly bulbs. Their popularity means that you can find LED bulbs in all shapes and sizes, including hand-blown models that are graceful enough to be statement pieces in their own right. At Steamed Studio, we encourage the use of LED bulbs with our lighting range. Doing our bit for the planet whilst creating beautiful art for your home? We’re in.