The Story of Lighting Our Homes

With increasing innovation around residential lighting, the emergence of ‘lighting as a service’, and a new focus on energy efficiency for both the industry and consumers, the team at Sammin Engineering took a look back at the history of lighting our homes. 


While grabbing the ladders to change a lightbulb may seem a bit of a nuisance, spare a thought for all those who have come before us. For most of humankind’s history, keeping the darkness at bay within our dwellings was quite the challenge. In a fascinating article by the Science Museum, the issue is brought to life, focussing on society’s movement from candlelight, then to gas and to electricity, and the cultural impact each has had.


The Days of Flame and Oil

Go back in time just a couple hundred years, and you will be looking at a world almost entirely lit by flame. So vital was the open hearth to a building for light, as well as warmth, that entire structures were usually built around it, with a stationary, grated fire the hub of activity in any dwelling. Visit almost any historic building, and you will find sitting niches right next to the hearth, where the families would cook, mend, and sew. Almost all home-based activity could be found undertaken around this big light source, with candles and oil lamps the only way to navigate the rest of the home. While such mobile sources of light were used by rich and poor alike, the quality of light differed considerably. For the poor of the British Isles, there were rushlights, a type of miniature torch made from dried stalks of the rush plant. These grass-like stems were soaked in fat or grease and placed in holders where the flame would work its way down the stem. A 30-centimeter rushlight could be expected to burn from anywhere between 15-60 minutes, depending on how it was made. While not the brightest or longest burning flames, being so inexpensive to make, they were still finding usage in rural communities until the 1900s.


As well as rushlights, the poor also relied on poorer quality candles, made from tallow. These stinking light sources emitted very little light and filled the air with smoke, which made working by their luminance even more difficult.


For the more affluent, there were oil lamps and better quality candles. These were made of beeswax, and the grease scooped out of the heads of sperm whales. While unfortunate for the whale, those lucky enough to have candles made from these substances could expect brighter, whiter-light that emitted little smoke.


Pre-gas and electricity, lighting outside of the home was an issue too, with almost all streets relying on moonlight and the dim light offered from buildings. This often caused many problems with gloomy, dark alleys rife with crime, and accidents.


Gas Lighting to Arc Lights

Just as oil lamp technology was nearing its limits towards the end of the 18th century, gas lighting stepped onto the stage, staying with us for over a century before being replaced by electricity. While gas lights found common usage in street lighting and the abundance of industrial factories of the time, only the middle-class and higher could afford gas-lit homes. For the 19th century, well-to-do gas provided convenient and bright lighting throughout the home, at the risk of the odd explosion and some particularly nasty fumes.


By the 1870s, electricity began to replace gas as the light source of choice around Britain - Ireland was well behind the innovation curve. It began with the tedious gas street lights that had to be lit and dowsed daily by hand. Instead, arc lighting was introduced where newly invented electric generators ran current through two large carbon rods, producing an intense light.


These lights were ideal for public spaces, producing enough light to illuminate very large areas such as busy junctions and fields to enable longer working hours in agriculture. They found particular favour in up-and-coming New York, where tycoons of industry would illuminate their skyscrapers and the surrounding area to demonstrate their wealth and magnanimity.


While not everyone was a fan, with Robert Louis Stevenson calling arc lights an “ugly blinding glare”, the technology led the way for future electric lighting.


The Early Light Bulb

Despite arc lights providing a solution for outdoor spaces, not many fancied using one inside their homes. Taking decades to develop, the incandescent bulb was ready for its time to shine. Developed* by Josepha Swan and prolific inventor Thomas Edison (*contested), the incandescent bulb began life in the 1840s but didn’t find commercial viability until the 1870s. The issue was finding a filament durable enough to stand a current and give off enough light to be useful. Many different materials were used to try and find a suitable medium, including cotton, platinum, and even human hair.


Once the technology was perfected, it didn’t take long before it found its way into homes, with domestic electricity supplies soon becoming more commonplace. While most would find the light given off by these early bulbs to be fairly dim, their incandescent light was still far superior to gas and oil, not to mention safer. With electricity firmly settled into the home environment, other appliances soon became commercially viable, using plug sockets to leech off the electric lighting’s electricity supply.


Modern Lighting

By the 1930s, newly-built homes were already hooked up to the developing national grid, with two-thirds of homes electrified by 1940. The main challenge was retrofitting existing buildings where electric supplies were difficult to implement, especially in rural areas.


As the decades have advanced, electric supplies have become more reliable. They are now becoming a lot greener, using more sustainable energy sources to produce the electricity that lights our homes.


The bulbs themselves have also seen advancements, with traditional incandescent bulbs slowly phased out for halogen and CFL bulbs before the arrival of LED alternatives that are found in most homes. These produce more light for less energy, and with smart lights now a feature of contemporary homes; you don’t even need to flick a switch, simply tell the light to come on, and it will!


Abundant lighting has revolutionized the world, allowing creativity and productivity to continue even after the sun goes down. However, we might want to consider what we’ve lost in the process, namely, the night sky.


For most of us living in urban and suburban areas, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to see stars at night, with the glow of streetlights and homes affecting 80 percent of the planet’s population. And while switching from the yellow glow of sodium street lights to the energy-efficient white LEDs might seem a welcome change, there is increasing research to show this is having a damaging effect on wildlife behaviour. It is an interesting space to watch, as innovation and the desire for energy-efficiency collides.