Book Notes: Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light by Jane Brox
HBrilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light by Jane Brox was an interesting read. It was interesting learning the story of artificial light and how it has changed human life so much over the last few centuries. Can you image a time when the sun went down people lived in darkness until the next morning?
Instead of reading the whole book here are 18 quotes from the book that really stood out in my mind.
The story of this increase—just a few centuries old—is one of technology and power, of politics, grievances, and class: the wealthy and powerful have always been the first to acquire new kinds of light and have always had more of it than others. But the story of light is also one of constancy and mystery, of beauty, brilliance, and shadows, and it includes those who continue to use the same types of light now as in centuries past.
LIGHT—SO PRECIOUS WITHIN—was even rarer on the streets of the cities, towns, and villages of the past, for before the seventeenth century, street lighting was almost nonexistent everywhere in the world.
The eye functions differently at night than during the day. In the dark, people see with their retinal rods rather than their retinal cones, and complete adaptation to night vision takes a full hour. Even then, human sight is much less acute at night, and the eye can’t distinguish color.
The privileged and wealthy, who had always been profligate with light—the more their parties and dances were brilliantly illuminated, the greater seemed their position and power—now habitually rose late in the day, so that rising late, too, became a mark of prestige.
Any mariner of the eighteenth century would have found it impossible to comprehend that one day a marker on the Eddystone reef would emit a light equivalent to 570,000 candles, or that such a light would not be essential to seeing a ship safely past the rocks; that there would come a time when navigators hardly needed to scan the horizon, for they would get their bearings from a prism of information—radar, GPS, and electronic charts. Data would become the new
Indeed, the ritual of spring-cleaning was largely a response to a winter’s worth of soot from hearths and lamps.
Machines are most economical when they run all the time, and electric lights proved so efficient that their use extended the workday, which had been gradually losing its dependence on natural daylight since the introduction of the mechanical clock in the sixteenth century. Edison’s success helped to fully establish the three-shift day and the final erasure of natural time in the factory.
The attempt to subdivide electric light may have continued for almost a century and have involved dozens of experimenters and electricians, but Americans would always think of Edison as the sole inventor of the electric light, and he would always hold a particular and sentimental place in the popular imagination, as was clear during the opening ceremonies of the Electricity Building.
One moment our world was dark, and the next brilliant. That almost no one understood how this was accomplished, and that this light, unrelated to the eons of tallow and coal; this light, requiring nothing of us—no fussing over a flame or wick, no worry over the quality of the oil; this light, with its own particular trajectory tied to the precision of the industrial age—timed and tuned, and pitched and keyed, all rhythm and exactitude; this light, conjured by wizards—as both Edison and Tesla with their varying temperaments were called; this light, with its constancy and brilliance, was nothing if not the evidence of things unseen. What it did require, of course, was that we go forward on trust. What culminated at Niagara was only the beginning: the electric grid would come to be considered the greatest technical accomplishment of the twentieth century. New wizards would detach us even more from the things of this earth, and we would need to trust also that our data, words, and life’s work would not in an instant disappear from before our eyes. H. G. Wells understood that something fundamental had shifted as he stood looking at the falls in 1906. Not only had the spiritual been fused to the industrial, but it also seemed that some glory had been taken away from Nature herself.
Elsewhere he wrote, “The Eskimo have no phrase expressing a greater degree of misery than ‘a woman without a lamp.’ After the death of a woman her lamp is placed upon her grave.”
THIS MUCH HAS ALWAYS been true: electricity can’t be stored. It must be generated as needed and consumed within moments of its generation. The supply must continually adjust itself to fluctuating demand, and a power plant must have sufficient capacity to meet all its customers’ needs at any given moment of the day. Maintaining this balance was especially fraught during the first tenuous decades of electrical expansion.
Electric light was now but one of many things that made life easier and also seemed to define what it meant to be modern.
When gaslight and kerosene lamps disappeared, so did the last vestige of a central fire in the home. Electric light was everywhere, yet concentrated nowhere; everyone sat in the halo of his or her own lamp.
At the same time, rural men and women stood bewildered before the one bare bulb hanging from their kitchen ceilings. Some screwed corncobs into light sockets to keep “the juice” from leaking out, or they would not let go of the chain pull, believing that once they released it, the light would go out.
Electricity meant that the children of farmers would be different people. Not only would they do better in school once they began studying by electric light, but it would carry them into a different world: “To a farm girl who has been brought up with many electrical conveniences it is like listening to a fairy tale to be told that once rural homes did not have electricity.”
Additionally, in modern industrial societies, humans tend to give themselves little time to wind down in darkness and quiet before attempting to go to sleep. And they no l onger vary their sleep according to seasonal changes in the length of days and nights, although even now the human biological clock still shifts according to the season and the amount of sunlight in a day.
Also, all the stars in light-polluted skies are less apparent than they were to our ancestors because the lights we live by are often so bright they suppress the rod system of the human eye: “About one-tenth of the World population, more than 40 percent of the United States population and one sixth of the European Union population no longer view the heavens with the eye adapted to night vision, because of the sky brightness.”
One of the first things we ask of light is that it grant us some assurance in the dark. Except during the threat of aerial bombardment or under the glare of interrogation, it has almost always made us feel safer. But whether or not it truly ensures our safety is an open question, one that has been argued since the seventeenth century, when a few European cities expressly forbade streetlights for fear that they encouraged footpads and drunks, even as other cities were installing them in hopes of bringing order to the night.