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The Past

Genius and blood: How cheap light transformed civilization

During the industrial era the cost of artificial light fell off a cliff — and the road to illumination was paved with ingenuity and slaughter.
Elderly man examining a blood pressure monitor at a table.

Credit: Lueder / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Key Takeaways
  • The pre-industrial world was unrelentingly dark and artificial light was cripplingly expensive.
  • In the mid-19th century kerosene — discovered by Abraham Gesner — started to replace whale oil and sent the cost of illumination into free fall.
  • The dawn of electric illumination began in earnest when Thomas Edison began marketing the first commercially available lightbulbs in the 1880s.

For nearly all of human history, fire was our only source of artificial light. Difficult to make and challenging to safeguard from wind and rain, fire was our first window into the darkness of night. Fire and the artificial light and radiant warmth it produced changed everything and helped catapult humans toward the modern age.

We have forgotten how unrelentingly dark the pre-industrial world was. Switch on a nightstand lamp or kitchen light, and you instantly and effortlessly summon into existence more illumination than was available to entire pre-industrial households. Artificial light has historically been the expensive privilege of the wealthy and powerful, while simultaneously being laborious and dirty to produce and maintain, and extremely limited in availability and quality for nearly everyone — but most especially for the world’s poor, which until industrialization was basically everyone

It is difficult to fathom just how expensive light was in the pre-industrial world. In what is now the United Kingdom, the price, adjusted for inflation, per million-lumen hours of artificial light was >£40,000 (or roughly $50,000 USD) in 1302 CE. This is the cost-to-light output equivalent to running ten modern 13W LED bulbs for just 7 hours.

While a home lit exclusively with candles may well appear a mark of poverty today, in the 1300s, it was a sign of significant wealth. Good candles made of bees’ wax provided the best light for the time, but their production required expensive materials and specialist skills. A limited supply of natural bees’ wax and laborious artisan manufacturing kept good candles out of the reach of all but the wealthiest individuals. The extreme cost of artificial light was, first and foremost, a technical problem. The demand for a bright, clean-burning illuminant was considerable; however, no one had managed to develop a technology that would allow a practical way of producing it inexpensively and at scale.

The quality, brilliance, and cost of artificial light had remained fundamentally unchanged for thousands of years. Prior to industrialization, artificial light was not only dim, dirty, and dangerous but also a cripplingly expensive time-cost in human labor. Matt Ridley summarized the problem most persuasively in his book The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves:

Ask how much artificial light you can earn with an hour of work at the average wage. The amount has increased from 24 lumen-hours in 1750 BC (sesame oil lamp) to 186 in 1800 (tallow candle) to 4,400 in 1880 (kerosene lamp) to 531,000 in 1950 (incandescent light bulb) to 8.4 million lumen-hours today (compact fluorescent bulb). Put it another way, an hour of work today earns you 300 days’ worth of reading light; an hour of work in 1800 earned you ten minutes of reading light.

Whale oil provided the first scalable, bright, reliable, adjustable, and portable on-demand artificial light. Whale oil burned with a clean and steady light and could be moved from room to room by lamp or illuminate a book held in the lap, presuming you could afford a book. Despite an initial abundance of whales, whale oil was expensive to harvest, refine, and transport. While whale oil provided the best illumination during the early Industrial Revolution, it was still astonishingly expensive. In 1850, four liters of whale oil cost as much as half the weekly wage of an average worker.

A whaling scene depicting a harpooned whale bleeding near a small rowing boat with sailors, with a sailing ship in the background.
19th-century advertisement from Mitchell and Croasdale, “dealers in sperm whale, lard, and tanners oil, candles, rice, &c.” Credit: Library Company of Philadelphia / Wikimedia Commons

While much of the industrializing world was gripped with a sudden fevered rush for the oils, lubricants, and other products derived from whales, North America was swiftly becoming a titan of whaling, an industry that helped to catapult American ports toward prosperity. The use of whale oil and the start of industrialized manufacturing of paraffin candles and lamps helped to push down the cost of artificial light in Britain to just £2,565 per million-lumen hours by 1845. Lighting with whale oil was obviously not without consequence; the entire process was a savagely cruel, filthy, and laborious undertaking. While helping to slake civilization’s thirst for illumination, the whaling industry pushed a number of whale species to the brink of extinction.

By 1846, North America alone had deployed a fleet of more than 700 whaling ships. While the total number of whales killed in pursuit of oil for illumination and other whale-based commodities is not well known, at least 300,000 whales were slaughtered between 1700 and 1800 alone.

“Open your refrigerator door, and you summon forth more light than the total amount enjoyed by most households in the 18th century.”

Bill Bryson, from At Home: A Short History of Private Life

Whale oil wasn’t, however, the only lighting fuel available at the time. Gas lighting was available sporadically in Europe and America in the early 1800s; however, gas lighting was expensive to install and maintain, relatively dangerous, and produced toxic vapors that killed plants, nauseated people, and destroyed fabrics. The wealthy who could afford gas often disdained it, and the poor couldn’t afford it. The niche for gas was largely commercial and industrial, as gas lighting became a staple source in the factories, large facilities, and streets of New York and London.

Gas lighting was bright — at least 20 times brighter than anything that had come before it. The use of gas for lighting was our first opportunity to experience anything like modern full-room ambient lighting. By the middle of the 19th century, gas lighting was available in many of the major cities in America and Britain, presuming you could afford it. If you were poor in the early 19th century, you usually had three choices: burn tallow candles made from slowly putrefying, rendered animal fat, huddle next to an open fire, or sit in the dark (perhaps the most common option of all). 

As the Industrial Revolution began to gather pace, so did the demand for illumination. The pressure put on whale populations was intense and unrelenting. There was, however, a reprieve for the whales towards the midpoint of the 19th century, as a new illuminant made an unexpected leap onto the world stage: kerosene. In 1846, Abraham Gesner, a Canadian physician with an infatuation for coal geology, devised a method for extracting, through distillation, a combustible liquid from coal tar, a byproduct of gas production, which he named kerosene.

Kerosene was a genuine breakthrough in lighting technology — it burnt brilliantly and could be produced cheaper than any illuminant that came before it: no whale massacres required. Kerosene squeezed from coal helped to drive the cost of light dramatically and, when paired with new lamp technology, provided a bright, odor-free, non-perishable, and inexpensive flame, all features that were not an innate property of whale oil.

Access to abundant and inexpensive crude oil would become the chemical energy breakthrough for the first mass lighting revolution in the history of civilization.

By 1850, the total output for coal-derived kerosene was slightly less than 18,000 barrels monthly for the entirety of North America. Demand outstripped supply by a wide margin, and there was no easy method to increase production from coal tar. What was needed was a method of producing kerosene inexpensively and on an industrial scale capable of meeting the burgeoning lighting demands of a rapidly modernizing and more prosperous global civilization. 

The feedstock for the next great lighting revolution came on August 27, 1859, when Edwin Drake and a small team struck oil in the rural woods of Pennsylvania. At the shallow depth of 69.5 feet (21 meters), Drake formally kicked off the age of hydrocarbons. While the Drake well itself was not a commercial success, it was, however, an unparalleled proof of concept. There was oil in America, and drilling was the method to liberate it from the ground. Access to abundant and inexpensive crude oil would become the chemical energy breakthrough for the first mass lighting revolution in the history of civilization. The industrial-scale production of liquid hydrocarbons was about to drive whaling for illumination out of business while transforming the entire course of human civilization: not bad for a summer’s work.

The first lighting revolution fueled by kerosene illuminated factories, workshops, and businesses and, in doing so, dramatically transformed the productivity of our species at night.

Kerosene refined from crude oil created a sustained free fall in the cost of illumination. Just 30 years after the first purpose-drilled crude oil well was completed, the cost of lighting in Britain had plummeted to £295 per million-lumen hours, a decrease of 97.5% from a hundred years earlier, with a similar drop in price experienced in America. It is tempting to dismiss the production and use of kerosene as a chemical footnote in the story of human progress; however, countless late nights were spent drafting bridges, ships, experiments, books, buildings, and business contracts by its light.

The first lighting revolution fueled by kerosene illuminated factories, workshops, and businesses and, in doing so, dramatically transformed the productivity of our species at night. Millions of middle-class and poor families had their first real opportunity to enjoy relatively clean, safe, bright, portable artificial lighting within the home.

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This first transformative breakthrough in lighting technology was, however, nothing in comparison to the second lighting revolution powered by coal-driven electrification. The dawn of electric illumination began in earnest when Thomas Edison began marketing and installing the first commercially available lightbulbs in the 1880s. From there, market forces and innovation pushed the availability, quality, safety, and ubiquity of artificial light dramatically upward while pushing its cost down to a level of essentially universal accessibility for all of humanity.

Incandescent lighting would eventually give way to fluorescent lighting and ultimately the light emitting diode (LED), such that the cost of artificial light in the United Kingdom (the data point used here extensively due to the availability of reliable records) decreased rapidly over just a century. Between the years 1900 and 2000, the million-lumen-hour price of artificial light in the United Kingdom fell, in inflation-adjusted terms, from £236 ($333 USD) to £2.62 ($3.32 USD). 

The innovation trajectory that began with the first commercially available incandescent lighting has made clean, safe, and inexpensive artificial light available to nearly all of humanity and in doing so, has transformed civilization.


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