Let There Be Light!

Light is life, darkness is death. Light is an act of creation and darkness is correlated with ignorance. These notions have always appeared in the metaphors which explain how this world was created. The fire was a gift from the gods, and also the light: the light of faith, of reason, the Century of Lights; lights are the lighthouses that guide the sailors when they approach the coastline, as an example of the wonderful guidance of the human being. This has always been the case, the dark night of the soul, and the dark night of the cities for millenniums. In the night, better to stay at home and let the world create its ghosts and uncertainties. Most of the people went out during the day, they were solar people, shining people. The doubtful people dominated the night. When the sun hid in the middle of an eclipse, a concern of shadows spread throughout the Earth, reaching even the people who knew their astronomical background.

Thomas Alva Edison holding one of his lightbulb models




But humans have a special ability to revert natural situations. First, they founded the cities, as time passed, they populated them with hundreds of thousands of people. Then, they illuminated them. The illumination of those urban centers was highly related to the industrial revolution, like many things created for the agglomerations, for the masses. It's not easy to explain how this phenomenon emerged, or how it spread throughout Europe, America and the rest of the world. It was not about enlightening a corner of a house, a holy place, or to manage to have a room with enough light to read or write. It was about creating life during the night, having lights to scare the ghosts away, making the cities safer. It wouldn't be sensitive to only describe the inventions that made possible the miracle without highlighting that the miracle was the decision to make of the night a part of the day.

To narrate this story is convenient to travel to the past and try to reconstruct the daily life in a city 3 centuries ago, visiting it only in the nights. Except for choosing a highly developed city, we would hardly find light sources. In 1769, Paris, the world's scientific capital during the Enlightenment, disposed of only 3,500 light sources that amazed the Paris people. If someone was to visit a great party in Versailles in that age, they would be surprised of the bad quality of the illumination, the flurry of the busy servants changing the candles of the lamps, the bad smell from the combustion and the asphyxia sensation that they would feel in the saloons.

Getting an adequate lighting system became a challenge for that society, whose knowledge and technological abilities were growing pretty fast. We can talk about relevant inventions at the end of the 18th century when the Swiss Aimé Argand (1750-1803) built an oil lamp with a new feature: he surrounded the wick that burned using a cylindrical glass tube, slightly curved, to allow the airflow, increasing the light produced by the combustion. Argand was interviewed by the largest investors in technological innovation at the time. He visited the Montgolfiers in Paris and Boulton in England. He obtained the English patent in 1784, but the success in France was handled by Antoine Quinquet (1745-1803), a pharmacist who improved the lamp of the Swiss and provided it with a name, the "quinqué lamp". The popular Quinquet lamp managed to introduce itself in most of the houses in industrialized countries during the 19th century and part of the 20th century.

This was not the only attempt to improve lighting in the European continent. The French engineer Philippe Lebon (1769-1804) understood that the problem with illumination was not going to be solved fabricating lamps for individual use, but it was necessary to find a way of bringing the light to the buildings and, to do so, they needed a fuel that could be used as a liquid. This way, Lebon managed to enlighten the Seignelay Hotel in 1801, during the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte. Lebon utilized gas obtained from the distillation of wood in a series of gadgets he called thermal lamps. The idea of distillation was good but it could be improved easily by using hard coal instead of wood or charcoal. The early death of Lebon prevented the continuation of his investigations until much later.

In England, the Argand lamp, built by Boulton, became a sensation; however, this businessman hired very capable people in his company, such as a very peculiar Scottish with fantastic creativity skills called William Murdoch (also documented as Murdock) (1754-1839) and the English Samuel Clegg (1781-1861). They both worked at compatible directions, but the Scottish had greater experience in the utilization of gas, product from the distillation of coal. He handled this dangerous flammable gas and managed to light up first, some buildings and then the own Boulton factories and the ones from other English businessmen like the Philips and Lee factories in Salford (textile), located at the proximities of Manchester. In this case, the night illumination provoked a spectacular increase in production during the late shifts. The two inventors, Murdoch and Clegg, also achieved to have other factories interested in the illumination process; they improved the filtering and depuration systems of the gas, achieving a decent illumination system, adapting as burners the Argand lamps, whose patent was exploited by Boulton.

After illuminating buildings, the next step was to bring light to the large urban centers, including the streets. The problem was in the environment, and a German entrepreneur Friedrich Winzer (1763-1830), who changed his surname to Winsor, in order to feel more comfortable in England, was the one who ran the adventure of starting a company for the distribution of gas at large scale. In 1806, he founded the company, but he was not able to manage it technically until Samuel Clegg entered the company and helped him to solve many of his technical problems. The most important cities were gradually lit up. London disposed of lit buildings and streets in 1814, and in 1817 was lit up a part of the city of Baltimore, in America. Paris had to wait until 1829. In the mid 19th century, almost all European large cities were illuminated. Illumination was a good that everyone wanted to have, the universal exhibitions showed the innovations in the lighting systems and they themselves were events very well lit. Little by little, the systems to filter the gas emissions were improving in order to make the gas more pure and to provide a more homogeneous and brighter light. New burners were invented, like the burner invented by the German chemist Robert W. Bunsen (1811-1899), which spread throughout Europe, and finally in 1880, gas illumination took a huge step by equipping the burners with "shirts for the gas", covers from different materials which surrounded the burner and glowed,  increasing the intensity of the illumination. The gas lights stopped being dim lights and started to shine with their own light. These gas lights made people think that the problem of illumination had been finally solved. However, that was not the case; a formidable competitor and inventor emerged, finally beating the gas. This competitor was "electricity" and the inventor was Thomas Alva Edison.

The substitution of the gas by electricity is a relevant case in the evolution of technologies, moved by the urge of inventing and not of the demand. The electric illumination was an innovation that ended up creating a necessity. It is true that, at that time electricity was a new trending source of energy; the telegraph, in all its versions, was the biggest triumph of the electricity, and Michael Faraday had just obtained a strange type of electricity by the movement of magnets, which was different from the electricity obtained from the common batteries, and also scientists started to build electric engines moved by both direct current and alternate current (AC/DC). It is not strange though, that the idea of generating light using electricity emerged at this time. At first, many inventors and engineers started to work on direct current. In fact, it was already known that it was possible to make a spark jump between the electrodes of a battery. The first thing they tried to achieve was a durable spark, known now as "electric arc". So, Paul Jablochkoff (1847-1894), a Russian telegraph engineer who settled in Paris, designed an electric arc lamp in 1876, being this the precedent of all lamps from this type that would be developed in the following years. It provided, however, a light that was too intense and short-lived, as it required to change its carbon electrodes very frequently.

The Jablochkoff's lamp became the starting point of the race to invent an electric lamp that didn't consume itself by the passage of electricity and that it glowed for a very long period of time. For this, it was required to introduce the exact amount of electricity in each lamp; in other words, to divide the light as the gas was divided into the household installations. Soon, they figured out that the electricity had to pass through a very thin filament, able to glow without burning, or without wearing off. Therefore, it was required to build an industrial vacuum machine and that challenge was solved by the German chemist settled in England Hermann Sprengel (1834-1906). The first person to use this invention was the English Joseph Swan (1828-1914), his lamp only served him for taking photographs though.

The electric lamp had become a challenge for the inventors of the last quarter of the 19th century. Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) accepted the challenge; he was already a famous inventor when in 1878 became interested in the design of an electric lamp, but he was not a theoretical intellectual or a dreamer of technological utopias, but an intelligent inventor with an excellent commercial vision. He didn't want to be just part of a sequence of inventors who made improvements on an object such as the electric lamp, to later be improved by other inventors. Edison wanted both the technological and commercial success of the invention. He wanted to compete with the gas industry, using another energy source, cheaper, cleaner and more reliable. The challenge seemed impossible, but he believed in his own creative skills, and in the enchantment of the electric lights that could become a trend in a city like New York, which experimented with everything. Finally, he managed to design a lamp thanks to the investigations of Swan on the properties of the carbon filament. The truth is that Edison's lightbulb kept glowing for days and it became an icon of the commercial success of that American inventor.

The following step was to start a company that would provide direct current to its clients, an electricity distribution system that, at the beginning, only reached a small part of the city of New York. Electricity was first a trend, then a necessity. It didn't just satisfy the lighting necessities but also the transport ones. Moreover, in Edison's case, his lightbulb was one of the hundreds of inventions that he managed to register throughout his entire life.

At the end of the 19th century, the night world in the cities was decently illuminated. Today, we can see from the satellites that oversee us, an incandescent world, and now we look for a less illuminated planet to observe better the starred skies, one of the natural free spectacles ruined by the excess of light. Intelligence and responsibility is currently at attenuating the lights in the cities.

Comments