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July 25, 2009 @ 1:01 pm
From BC to T.A.E. to LEDs, Part 1

pharos_lighthouseHuh? I’m referring to Before Christ/Before Common Era, Thomas Alva Edison and Light Emitting Diodes. Edison of course was the primary inventor and commercializer of incandescent light bulbs and LEDs are the new high tech in lighting. I thought it would be interesting to survey the history of lighting, compare the different products and highlight some interesting statistics along the way. Be sure to click the article title or “read more” link below to read the entire post and check back tomorrow for Part 2.

Artificial lighting has been with us since around 400,000 BC when fire was harnessed by Homo erectus (probably by accident at first, like many great discoveries…). Torches quickly became the first portable lamps, but holding a burning stick isn’t particularly safe or efficient. By 13,000 BC, prehistoric cave dwellers had begun fabricating lamps by carving rocks, shells and horns to insert fiber wicks fueled by animal and vegetable fats. Apparently, couch potato genes started expressing themselves after agriculture took the world by storm in 8,000 BC, because by 5,000 BC people said forget carving lamps – let’s use entire animals! So, oily birds and fish were threaded with wicks – the smell must have been wonderful and I’m not sure if they ate the resulting BBQ. Wealthy people of the Mediterranean and elsewhere quickly switched to less pungent fuels such as olive oil and sesame oil.

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The next major breakthrough didn’t come until 600 BC when Greeks had become expert potters. These pottery lamps could be fashioned with handles and were the first lamps that were cheap and practical enough to be mass produced. For the next several hundred years, more time was spent on philosophizing about the science of light then on inventing new ways to create it. However, by 100 AD, horn lanterns became the first clunky flashlights. They were made with transparent plates of cattle horn. Finally, an invention with staying power, the candle, hit the market by 400 AD. The best ones were made from beeswax and they became ubiquitous in church rituals because few others could afford them. The plebes used sub par tallow candles. Not so ironically, no strides in lighting technology were made during the Dark Ages, or the Middle Ages, for that matter.

For hundreds of years, candles and lamps maintained a stranglehold on the market. Lighting was still waiting for its “Renaissance.” While not strictly a lighting device, the 16th-17th Century Laterna Magica (magic lantern) was a precursor of good things to come. By combining an oil lamp with a lens one could view pictures painted on glass plates. The magic lantern was the first projection device and ultimately the first step on a path toward motion pictures. Check out Part 2 here!

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2 Responses to “From BC to T.A.E. to LEDs, Part 1”

  1. GreenBldgBlog - Home Says:

    […] the magic lantern in Part 1, history’s lighting developers refocused their collective effort on lamps. In fact, I could go on […]

  2. GreenBldgBlog - Home Says:

    […] you read my post on the history of lighting (Part 1 and Part 2) then you know about the energy efficiency benefits of LEDs as a light source. Ricoh, […]

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