Artificial Gas and Electrical Lighting Systems Are Developed That Change Living and Work Patterns

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Artificial Gas and Electrical Lighting Systems Are Developed That Change Living and Work Patterns


With the use of gas and electricity, lighting systems in the nineteenth century provided more versatile illumination in both interior and exterior applications. These new lights extended the day at home, at work, and at play as people could perform more activities beyond the hours of light provided by the Sun. Artificial light supplanted natural light so that people increasingly relied on the technology of lighting in organizing their lives.


At the beginning of the nineteenth century men like Humphry Davy (1778-1829), head of London's Royal Institution, demonstrated that an electrical current sent across a gap in a circuit created a bright white spark of light. Electrical technology was in its infancy at that time, and little practical application resulted from this new electrical phenomenon. Yet, at a time when most illumination consisted of the dim light from candles or oil lamps—which required high maintenance by replacing candles or trimming wicks and refilling lamps—the prospects of brighter, easier-to-use lighting systems using electricity or gas appealed to a broad constituency.

Two developments competed with electricity as sources of light in the nineteenth century: gas illumination and kerosene lamps. The discovery in 1781 by Archibald Cochrane that burning coal produced a coal gas, and the successful use of coal gas in lighting by William Murdock (1754-1839) in the period from 1780 to 1810 led to the technology of gas lighting. Murdock's system and a new gas lamp design by Francois Ami Argand, who was familiar with Antoine Lavoisier's new chemical theories of combustion and the role of oxygen in burning, combined to produce a brighter gas light—an attractive new and widely used lighting technology. This system became more deeply entrenched with the utilization of the incandescent gaslight invented by Carl Auer von Welsbach (1858-1929) in 1886. Welsbach gas mantles provided a soft light especially suitable for people's homes, offices, and shops. Although gas illumination presented problems of supply, fire danger, and switch-on, this system competed successfully with electrical lighting into the early years of the twentieth century.

The discovery of vast reserves of petroleum in the eastern United States in the 1860s revived the oil lamp. Especially in those areas not served by gas or electric distribution systems, the kerosene lamp provided an adequate and relatively economical source of illumination, especially in the home. The kerosene lamp had to be refilled and the wick had to be trimmed—disadvantages that doomed its use once gas or electric lighting systems were available. However, for much of the last third of the nineteenth century, such oil lamps served a wide population.

In the 1870s the production of a steady electrical current with improved dynamos, or generators (especially the design of Zenobe Gramme), allowed lighting by electricity to gain a place in lighting system technology of that time. The first widely used technique was arc lighting, in which current passed through a circuit with two carbon rods separated by a small gap; this produced a bright white glowing spark. With the work of Americans such as Charles Brush and Elihu Thomson (1853-1937), this very bright light saw application in public places such as city streets, parks, factories and large stores, lighthouses, exhibition halls/arenas, theaters, and railway stations. These first commercially viable electric lighting systems established the necessary elements of a new lighting technology. But even though arc lighting was successful as a new and very bright artificial light source, it had its drawbacks as well. The carbon rods had to be replaced daily; the lights left a dirty carbon ash residue; and the intensity of the arc light made it unsuitable for smaller areas such as homes. So inventors in the 1870s sought to subdivide the electric arc by creating an incandescent electric light whose filament produced a soft glow in an enclosed glass tube, thereby eliminating the chief problems with the arc light.

Two pioneers developed a commercial incandescent lamp: Joseph Wilson Swan (1828-1914) of Britain and Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) of the United States. They realized that a successful lamp needed a high-resistance filament surrounded by a vacuum to reduce the rate of combustion in the bulb. Finding a suitable filament required a substantial effort in directed trial and error methods; the availability of the effective Sprengel vacuum pump solved the problem of securing a satisfactory vacuum within the lamp. By 1879 both men had produced a carbon-filament lamp suitable for commercial application and had begun marketing this new form of artificial light. Edison especially foresaw the importance of research and development for the continual improvement of this new technology and relied on his Menlo Park Laboratory staff to create an electrical lighting system, adding generators, distribution systems, central power stations, and even metering devices to his basic light bulb. Further, his marketing acumen made his new system more widely accepted than those of his competitors. Edison's insights and prescience regarding electricity and its utilization chiefly in an urban setting allowed for the expansion of electric lighting to a wide variety of applications and its eventual dominance in lighting technology for the twentieth century.


Improved gas and newly developed electric lights transformed life in the latter third of the nineteenth century. Artificial light appeared in homes, factories and offices, stores and streets, various public buildings and arenas, and churches. These lamps freed people from the limited hours of natural light and extended their days and their activities.

In the home, the new lights replaced candles and oil lamps. Reading and writing were much easier. Various home-centered events from small gatherings to large parties could take place more safely at night. Home cleanliness improved because the brighter lights drew attention to dirt and dust that was less obvious with earlier illumination. Electricity provided a cleaner, safer source of light with low maintenance; it no longer was necessary to clean glass globes or to trim wicks. In addition, this new technology allowed the separation of public and private lighting spaces. Illumination of rooms in a house would be softer and gentler than lights used outside and around the home.

Interior house design changed with electric lights as well. Earlier, unadorned windows and light colored walls helped to brighten otherwise dim rooms lighted by candle or oil. But the brighter effect of gas or electric lights meant that households used drapes and curtains more extensively to soften that new light. Likewise, interior decor, from wall colors to furniture, was more muted so that the light was diffused rather than reflected. With less reliance on natural light, people used Tiffany lampshades to filter electric lamps or stained glass windows to vary the effect of light on the interior from both natural and artificial sources. Even windowless rooms had more appeal with the accessibility of this innovative lighting technology from gas or electricity.

The worker in a store, office, or factory experienced a change in operations due to the new lights. Stores used exterior lighting to highlight a sign or storefront; their expanded interiors were brighter from display windows to display cases. Nighttime sales hours were possible, and staff found night schedules part of their work week. In addition, factory laborers found their hours extended. Especially during the short winter days, factory owners used interior lighting to lengthen the work day. At the same, time night shift work became more widespread. The adage of working from dawn to dusk had less relevance by century's end.

In public spaces, gas and electric lighting made city streets safer and public buildings more accessible. First electric arc lights and then incandescent lamps illuminated public squares and parks, urban streets and arenas/exhibition halls, houses of worship, and art galleries and museums. Theaters profited from electric lighting as well: the expensive limelight, used earlier in the century, gave way to the intense blue-white brightness of arc lights as the new spotlights in auditoriums. Instead of using dangerous open flame lamps for stage lights, theater operators welcomed enclosed incandescent lamps as a more convenient and safer replacement. These many new applications occurred mainly in urban centers, and people who lived in such locales experienced a transformation in lifestyle with the advent of electric lighting.

What began as a laboratory curiosity in 1800 with Humphry Davy's demonstration of a simple arc light ended in 1900 with fully developed electric lighting systems, using both arc lights and incandescent lamps. Because of their softer illumination and ease of use and maintenance, incandescent lamps dominated the marketplace. The nineteenth century saw the transformation of lighting technology and with it a significant change in the way people lived. Light no longer was restricted to the Sun's rays, and the impact of artificial light varied from the drudgery of longer working hours for industrial laborers to safer streets and a wider variety of nighttime activities for many. For much of the latter third of the century, gas illumination competed successfully with electric lights as the accepted lighting technology of the era. But the cleaner, more varied aspects of electric lighting along with heavy promotion by innovators such as Thomas Edison established electric lighting as the dominant system early in the twentieth century.


Further Reading

Bowers, Brian. Lengthening the Day. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Friedel, Robert D. and Paul Israel. Edison's Electric Light: Biography of an Invention. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986.

O'Dea, William T. The Social History of Lighting. London: Routledge and Paul, 1958.

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. Disenchanted Night. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Stoer, G.W. History of Light and Lighting. Eindhoven, Netherlands: Philips Lighting, 1988.