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History of Luminaires

Above: Gaslights can still be found lighting streets around the world. Here a gaslight glows brightly through the fog in front of the House of Parliament and Big Ben in London.

Let There Be Light

Lighting has come a long way since the days of prehistoric man when lamps were made from naturally occurring materials such as rocks, shells, horns and stones filled with grease and a fiber wick with animal or vegetable fats providing the fuel source.

Shining Brighter

In the year 1417, the mayor of London, Sir Henry Barton, ordered lanterns with lights to be hung outside during the winter between Hallowtide and Candlemasse - thus the first recorded use of street lighting.

But for hundreds of years, there weren't many improvements made in the quality of light given off by lamps. Not until 1783, when Ami Argand, a Swiss chemist, developed the principle of using an oil lamp with a hollow circular wick surrounded by a glass chimney, did lighting quality improve. The wick and chimney improved the combustion of the oil and resulted in a brighter light and less smoke. But because the Argand lamp required much more fuel than did conventional oil lamps, their use was limited to the rich, and to public places.

These streetlights are a turn-of-the-century reproduction from the Mel Northey Company. Lighting companies are increasingly drawing upon designs from the last century as inspiration for modern light fixture designs. Photo Courtesy of Mel Northey Company, Inc.

Seeing A Little Clearer

Among his many inventions and innovations, Ben Franklin improved upon the globed-shaped, oil burning street lamps that quickly became dark from soot and had to be cleaned nearly every day.

In his autobiography, Franklin wrote about the changes he made to the street lamps: "I therefore suggested composing them of four flat panes, with a long funnel above to draw up the smoke, and crevices admitting air below, to facilitate the ascent of the smoke; by this means they were kept clean, and did not grow dark in a few hours, as the London lamps do, but continu'd bright till morning."

Here a lighting attendant lights a gas lamp in Paris, France in 1951.

Along Came Edison

Thomas Edison's first successful lamp used carbonized cotton thread as a filament, installed in a glass bulb, with all air evacuated. On the afternoon of October 21, 1879, Edison's prototype had lasted 45 hours and the next day, he began experimenting using cardboard as a filament. The cardboard filament was more successful than the carbonized thread, and soon afterwards, production of his lamps had increased. On December 31, 1879, Edison gave his first public demonstration of his new invention, at Menlo Park, New Jersey. Special trains were run on the Pennsylvania Railroad to accommodate the masses of visitors. About 100 cardboard filament lamps were used in this demonstration, lighting the streets, the laboratory, and the station at Menlo Park.

Each lamp was rated at 16 candlepower and consumed about 100 watts. (Average life was about 100 hrs.)

Turn Of A Century

The use of streetlights lit by candles was steadily decreasing by the beginning of the 20th century as developers began searching for safer and more effective ways to light the streets.

Streetlights lit by candles were steadily decreasing by the beginning of the 20th century as developers began searching for safer and more effective ways to light the streets.

High Intensity Discharge Lamp

The first high intensity discharge lamp (HID) introduced was the mercury lamp in 1901. Eventually low-pressure sodium, high-pressure sodium, and metal halide lamps, were developed. All of these sources consist of electric arcs, operating in a gaseous environment, sealed within a glass tube or bulb. HID light sources are all more efficient than the electric filament lamp, however they also have limited color-rendering abilities, due to their 'line' spectrum (not continuous spectrum). Many HID lamps are now also provided with a phosphor coating on the inside of the bulb. This coating causes additional secondary emissions of visual radiation, providing a wider 'spectrum' of light and color. Typical applications include industrial, commercial and architectural lighting.

Mercury-Vapor Lamp

Peter Cooper Hewitt developed the first practical mercury-vapor lamp in 1901. This was a tubular source about 4-feet-long that produced a bluish green colored light. The first high-pressure mercury lamps similar to the ones used today, were introduced in 1934 in the 400 watt size. Mercury lamps now range in size from 40 watts to 1,000 watts and produce approximately 55-60 lumens per watt.

During the 1930s and 40s, fluorescent and incandescent lighting became popular as people began relying heavily on automobiles as their primary mode of transportation. A lighted street was referred to as a "white way."

This daguerreotype of a Parisian gaslight was taken in 1855 by an unknown photographer. Gaslights allowed citizens to walk, shop, and socialize after dark.

Sodium Lamps

Research into low-pressure sodium gas discharge lamps started in the 1920s. The first commercial application was a road lighting installation that was put into service between Beek and Geleen in the south of the Netherlands on July 1, 1932. The installation employed low-pressure sodium lamps with a lumen efficacy 40 lumens per watt.

In the same year, the Purley Way in London was also lit by low-pressure sodium lamps. Today, the modern low-pressure sodium lamp is considered to be the most efficient lamp available, providing more than 220 lumens per watt and can be recognized by their deep amber color.

Recent Developments

Sulfur lamps are a recent development in light source technology. In 1994, this light source was developed by Fusion Lighting (USA), with support from the U.S. Department of Energy.

About the size of a golf ball, the sulfur lamp consists of a quartz bulb containing non-toxic sulfur and inert argon gas at the end of a thin glass stick.

A microwave energy source of 2.45 Ghz. (magnetron) bombards the lamp while a motor cooled by a fan spins the lamp at 3,400 rpm. Microwave energy excites the gas, which heats the sulfur, forming a brightly glowing plasma that can illuminate a very large area. Other lighting companies are currently working to develop new fixtures and equipment for the sulfur lamp.

Sources: A History of Light and Lighting, Williams, Bill, edition 2.3; History of Street Lighting in the United States,

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June 18, 2019, 9:09 pm PDT

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