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The Evolution of Lighting: From Fire to LEDs

Caveman Light

Lighting has come a long way from the discovery of fire to the present-day LED lights. Humans have always been fascinated with finding new and better ways to light up their surroundings, and this article will take a deep dive into the evolution of lighting from ancient times to the present day. We will explore the key figures, scientific breakthroughs, and cultural implications of these technological advances.

Early Lighting

Before the invention of electric lighting, humans relied on natural light sources, such as fire and sunlight, during the day. Ancient people used fire for illumination in a variety of ways. They often built fires inside their homes to provide light and warmth.

Torches, made from sticks or other materials soaked in resin or animal fat, were also used to light up the night. For example, ancient Egyptians used torches made of papyrus reeds and dipped in animal fat to light up their homes.

Early lamps were made from clay, pottery, or ceramic materials, often with a wick made from flax or other fibers. For example, the ancient Greeks and Romans used clay oil lamps to light up their homes. The oil used in the lamps was typically olive oil, which was readily available in the Mediterranean region.

Oil Lamps

Oil lamps played a significant role in religious ceremonies and were used in the temples of the gods. They were also used during banquets and other social gatherings, where they provided light for guests and added to the ambiance of the event. In addition, oil lamps were used in the amphitheaters for nighttime performances, allowing the audience to see the action on stage.

Candle Light

The ancient Egyptians are credited with inventing the first candles, which were made from beeswax. These candles were primarily used for religious and ceremonial purposes.

It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that candles became a popular way to light a home. During this time, candles were made from tallow, the fat of animals like cows and sheep. Tallow candles were relatively inexpensive and could be produced in large quantities, making them a popular choice for everyday lighting.

Candle Glow

However, tallow candles had some significant drawbacks. They produced a lot of smoke and soot, which could blacken walls and ceilings. They also had a foul odor, which made them unpleasant to use in enclosed spaces. These issues led to the development of new types of candles made from beeswax and, later, whale oil.

Beeswax candles were expensive, but they burned cleanly and produced a pleasant aroma. They were primarily used for religious and ceremonial purposes and were considered luxury items.

Whale Oil Lamps

Whale oil became a popular material for making lamps in the 18th and 19th centuries. Whaling ships would hunt whales and harvest their blubber, which was then processed to extract the oil. This oil was used to fuel lamps that provided light inside homes, on ships, and in street lamps.

Whale Oil

Whale oil lamps had a significant impact on people’s lives. Before the widespread use of whale oil lamps, people relied on candles, which were often dim and inadequate. With the introduction of whale oil lamps, people could enjoy brighter and more reliable lighting, which had a significant impact on productivity and quality of life. For example, people could read and work at night without the limitations imposed by dim lighting.

However, the use of whale oil lamps had significant environmental consequences. Whaling ships hunted whales to near extinction, with some species nearly disappearing altogether. Additionally, the processing of whale blubber was a messy and dangerous process, with workers exposed to toxic fumes and other hazards.

As the environmental and human costs of whale oil lamps became more apparent, alternatives such as kerosene lamps and, eventually, electric lighting were developed.

Today, whale oil lamps are considered a relic of the past, but their impact on the environment and society serves as a reminder of the importance of sustainable and responsible use of natural resources.

Don’t Gaslight Me!

Gas lighting became popular in the early 19th century to illuminate homes, streets, and public spaces. The first gas lighting system was developed by William Murdoch in 1792, and it was installed in a textile mill in Manchester, England.

Gas lighting burns a mixture of gas and air to produce a flame. The gas used for lighting was usually coal gas, produced by heating coal without air. The resulting gas was then purified and compressed for use in gas lighting.


To use gas lighting in a home, a gas meter was installed to measure the amount of gas used. The gas was then piped into the home and burned in a gas lamp, which produced a bright and steady flame. Gas lighting was considered a significant improvement over candles and oil lamps, as it was brighter, more reliable, and produced less smoke and soot.

However, gas lighting also had some significant drawbacks. The gas used for lighting was highly combustible and posed a significant fire hazard. Gas leaks and explosions were common, leading to numerous accidents and fatalities.

Despite these drawbacks, gas lighting continued to be popular throughout the 19th century, and it was used in various applications, from home lighting to street lighting and public spaces.

However, as electric lighting became more prevalent in the early 20th century, gas lighting was gradually replaced by electric light.

The Birth of Electric Lighting

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, numerous inventors attempted to develop electrical lighting systems. But it was Sir Joseph Swan and Thomas Edison who are credited with creating the incandescent light bulb in 1879.

The light bulb worked by passing an electrical current through a filament, causing it to heat up and glow, producing light. Edison’s bulb was made with a carbon filament, sometimes called the ‘carbon filament bulb’.

Edison Lightbulb

Electric light took several decades to dominate the home lighting market. While Thomas Edison invented the first practical incandescent light bulb in 1879, it took time for the technology to become widely adopted.

In the early years of electric lighting, it was primarily used in public spaces such as streets, theaters, and public buildings. The cost of installing electric lighting in homes was prohibitively expensive for most people, and there were few power plants to supply the necessary electricity.

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that electric lighting became more prevalent in homes. The development of more efficient generators and transmission systems, as well as improvements in light bulb technology, made electric lighting more accessible and affordable.

By the 1920s, electric lighting had become the dominant form of home lighting, and it remained so throughout the 20th century. While other lighting technologies, such as fluorescent and LED lighting, have since been developed, electric lighting remains the most common form of home lighting to this day.

The dominance of electric lighting in the home lighting market is a testament to the importance of innovation and technological advancement in shaping our modern world.

Neon Lights

In the early 20th century, neon lights were invented by French engineer Georges Claude. Neon is a rare gas that glows brightly when exposed to electric current, and it quickly became a popular choice for lighting signs, advertisements, and displays due to its bright colors and energy efficiency.

For instance, the iconic “Neon Sign Capital of the World,” Las Vegas, is well-known for its vibrant neon signs that light up the night sky. From casinos to car dealerships, neon signs have become a staple of modern advertising and design.

Compact Fluorescent Bulbs

Compact fluorescent bulbs were invented in the 1970s by Edward Hammer, a General Electric engineer. These bulbs use less energy than older incandescent bulbs and last much longer. They work by passing electricity through a gas-filled tube, producing UV light. The UV light is absorbed by the phosphor coating inside the bulb, creating visible light. Compact fluorescent bulbs became a popular choice for residential and commercial lighting due to their energy efficiency and longer lifespan.

LED Lighting

The invention of the LED (light-emitting diode) in 1962 revolutionized the lighting industry. LEDs use much less energy than previous lighting technologies and have a much longer lifespan. They work by passing an electrical current through a solid semiconductor material, which creates light. Additionally, the color of the light emitted by an LED can be controlled using different semiconductor materials. LED lights have become the dominant lighting technology in the market today, and they are used in various applications, from home lighting to street lighting and even in high-tech displays and signs.

The Implications of Lighting Technology

Advances in lighting technology have greatly impacted society and culture. With the invention of electric lighting, people could work and carry out activities at nighttime, leading to increased productivity and economic growth.

Neon signs and lighting spectacles altered the nighttime landscape of cities and became a defining feature of modern architecture. Compact fluorescent bulbs and LEDs have had a significant impact on energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, making lighting more sustainable and cost-effective.

The Future of Lighting

Lighting technology constantly advances, and the future promises even more exciting advances. For instance, researchers are exploring new materials and applications for LED lighting that can improve energy efficiency, reduce costs, and create new lighting experiences.

Here are some technologies that might shape the future of lighting.

OLED Lighting

Organic light-emitting diode (OLED) lighting is a new technology that is being developed for use in homes. OLEDs are thin and flexible, which makes them highly versatile and adaptable for a variety of lighting applications.

Smart Lighting

Smart lighting technology allows homeowners to control their lighting using their smartphone or other devices. This technology enables users to adjust the brightness, color, and timing of their lights remotely, as well as create customized lighting schemes for different rooms or moods.

Solar-Powered Lighting

As solar technology becomes more affordable and accessible, solar-powered lighting is becoming an increasingly popular option for homeowners. Solar-powered lights can be used both indoors and outdoors, and they offer an energy-efficient and sustainable alternative to traditional lighting.


Li-Fi is a new technology that uses light waves to transmit data, similar to how Wi-Fi uses radio waves. While still in the early stages of development, Li-Fi has the potential to revolutionize the way we think about lighting, as it could enable lighting fixtures to also function as high-speed data transmitters.

Overall, the future of home lighting looks bright, with a focus on energy efficiency, sustainability, and smart technology. As we continue to innovate and develop new lighting technologies, it will be exciting to see what the future holds.


From the discovery of fire to the invention of LEDs, the evolution of lighting has been a long and fascinating journey. Inventors throughout history have pushed the boundaries of science and engineering to create increasingly efficient and effective lighting systems.

Today, LED lighting dominates the market, and sustainable lighting solutions are becoming more and more prevalent. As we continue to innovate and develop new lighting technologies, it will be exciting to see what the future holds.

Lighting Trivia


The phrase “to gaslight someone” originates in a play and subsequent movie titled “Gaslight” from the 1940s. In the story, a husband attempts to convince his wife that she is going insane by manipulating her surroundings and making her doubt her own perceptions and memories.

The title of the play and movie is derived from the gaslights used in the husband’s scheme. He intentionally dims the gaslights in their home, then denies that anything has changed when his wife questions the flickering lights. This causes her to doubt her own perception of reality, which is the essence of gaslighting.

Over time, the phrase “to gaslight someone” has come to refer to any behavior that manipulates a person’s perception of reality to make them doubt their own sanity. This can take many forms, from intentionally lying or withholding information to denying the validity of a person’s experiences or emotions.

While the phrase “to gaslight someone” originated in a work of fiction, its use has become more widespread as awareness of gaslighting as a manipulative tactic has grown.

Football Pele Named After Lightbulb Inventor

The footballer Pele was named Edison after Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb. Pele’s real name is Edson Arantes do Nascimento, and his father, João Ramos do Nascimento, was a soccer player who admired Thomas Edison and his innovations. When Edson was born, his father decided to name him after the inventor, but due to a mistake on the birth certificate, his name was registered as “Edson” instead of “Edison”.

Pele is widely regarded as one of the greatest footballers of all time, and he helped Brazil win three World Cup championships in 1958, 1962, and 1970. Despite being named after Thomas Edison, Pele is known more for his skills on the soccer field than for any connection to the world of science or technology.

The World’s Oldest Lightbulb

The world’s oldest functioning light bulb is known as the Centennial Light and is located in a fire station in Livermore, California. It has been burning continuously since 1901, making it over 120 years old as of 2023.

The Centennial Light is a hand-blown, carbon filament bulb manufactured by the Shelby Electric Company. It was originally installed in the fire department hose cart house in downtown Livermore and provided light for firefighters as they prepared their equipment for use.

Over the years, the fire station moved locations several times, but the Centennial Light remained in use. It was only in the 1970s that the bulb’s age was discovered, and it was subsequently recognized as the world’s oldest functioning light bulb.

The Centennial Light has survived numerous power outages, earthquakes, and even a move to a new fire station in 1976. It is still lit to this day and has become a popular tourist attraction in Livermore, drawing visitors from around the world.

In addition to its longevity, the Centennial Light is also noteworthy for its low wattage. It is only 4 watts, which is much lower than the wattage of modern light bulbs. Despite its age and low wattage, the Centennial Light continues to burn brightly, serving as a testament to the durability and longevity of early lighting technology.