Waking up to a town-wide power cut this morning set me thinking about how recently in history we lit up the night. As a person writing mostly stories set at the very beginning of the revolution in lighting, it’s something I need to keep very much in mind.
Fire, fire burning bright
Fire came first, of course. Humans had brought fire into their campsites (for protection, warmth, and light) long before recorded history. The first portable light would have been a piece of firewood, with experimentation leading to better and better torches for lighting the winter evenings or winter marches. In essence, a torch is a pole (of wood or metal) with something at the end that burns easily: perhaps moss or fibre soaked in fuel plants (oil pressed from nuts or seeds) or from animal fats.
A lamp to drive away darkness
The first lamps comprised moss or something similar soaked in animal fat, and held in a hollow rock or shell. Oil lamps start popping up in dig sites of around 6,500 years. Made from metal, stone or clay, they have a fuel chamber that contains the oil, one or more pouring holes through which to fill the fuel chamber, and a wick hole or nozzle for the wick, which was a twist of some flammable material.
Because only the wick and the oil it it soaks up is aflame, oil lamps give light for longer for the same amount of oil.
Light a penny candle
Candles came along around 3,000 BC. They didn’t spill, like oil lamps, and there was no need to advance the wick by hand. On the other hand, they were tedious to make. Beeswax candles were the best, but very expensive. Smelly tallow candles were the most common until the sperm whale industry of the 18th century introduced candles made of spermaceti. Even after advances in lamp making in the 19th century, candles continued to be improved, with paraffin wax arriving in the 1850s, along with plaited wicks that self-consumed and didn’t need trimming.
Recently in history…
The explosion of technological innovation that began in the late 18th century had, by the end of the 19th century, brought us the central draught fixed oil lamp, the kerosene lamp, gas lighting, and electric lighting with incandescent bulbs.
The first house was lit by electricity in Northumberland in 1878 (or, at least, the picture gallery was), with the first street (in Newcastle) following a year later.
And 142 years later, the electricity has returned in time for me to write this post.