Tuesday, October 11, 2011


Next time you head for the bathroom in the middle of the night, consider what the casual act of lighting your way would’ve entailed just over a century ago: If you were lucky enough to have a house with piped-in gas, you could strike a match to the nearest gas mantle to get a blinding white flame. Otherwise, you’d have to stumble your way to the john by the light of a guttering candle. No wonder so many Victorian houses burned to the ground.

Although nowadays it’s hard to imagine a world without electric lighting, it's been with us for a relative wink of an eye. Thomas Edison perfected his incandescent bulb in 1879, after trying out hundreds of filament materials ranging from bamboo to hair to paper (he finally settled on tungsten). Not so well known is that Edison also had to invent a way to evacuate the air from the bulbs--no mean task using Victorian technology.  

Even so, it took another twenty years or so before electric lights had largely replaced gas mantles in American homes. As late as the early 1900s, older houses with gaslight were still being retrofitted for electricity. These transitional houses are easy to spot: the wires leading to the electric fixtures were often run inside the old gas pipes. 

In the early days of electric lighting, fixtures intentionally flaunted naked bulbs so that no one could possibly mistake them for gas.  It was a way for people to advertise their modernity, much as hipsters of the 1990s sported conspicious cell phone antennas on their cars.

Since that time, there have been surprisingly few fundamental changes in residential lighting.  Switches and wiring were eventually hidden inside of walls instead of being mounted on top of them, but other than that, most houses continued to have lighting fixtures in the center of ceilings, much as they had in the days of gaslight. The Revivalist home styles of the 1920s brought a craze for wall sconces--another gaslight derivative--but the fashion had largely died out by the end of that decade.

The first really new development in lighting since Edison’s light bulb was neon tubing, which made a big splash in the early 1930s. It made its American debut in a sign for a Packard showroom, and was soon all the rage as signage in movie theaters and other commercial buildings. However, with its otherworldly glow, it found little use in residential design.  

Fluorescent lighting (not to be confused with neon) was introduced not long afterward.  Being diffuse and hence glare-free, and also producing much more light for a given amount of power, it quickly became the standard for commercial buildings.  Still, no matter how hard architects tried to push its use in luminous ceilings and other Modernist lighting concepts, the sickly blue-green quality of its light did not endear it to homeowners. It took another forty years of improvement, as well as laws mandating its use, before fluorescent lighting was grudgingly accepted into American homes.

In the interim, a number of other high-efficiency lighting types have been developed, including mercury vapor, sodium vapor, and metal halide, but the unnatural spectrum of light they produce has also precluded their use in domestic work. 

By contrast, halogen residential lighting, introduced during the 80s, was an instant hit with the public. Why? Halogen’s warm, yellow-white light is very close to the spectrum of sunlight. Accordingly, engineers are currently working hard to make the next big development in high efficiency lighting--light-emitting diodes, or LEDs--as warm and friendly as incandescent and halogen lamps.

Because the sun, after all, is still everyone’s favorite lighting fixture.  

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