History of lights re-illuminated

Menorahs, Star of Bethlehem, Christmas tree lights, Rudolph’s red nose—all help us celebrate the upcoming holiday season. But of course, approaching the Winter Solstice, we focus on lights because it gets so dang dark!

Until Thomas Edison, all artificial light came from something burning. Hollywood has given us a false impression of a candle-lit world. They backlight a set so it is bright enough to film, and then place candles here, there, and everywhere.

Consider reality: A candle is about one hundredth as bright as a 100-watt light bulb. You can just barely read in front of a five-watt nightlight, but try reading by candlelight. If you don’t singe your eyebrows or set the page on fire, your eyes will soon tire from the flicker. Anytime we lose electric power, you quickly learn how difficult it is after dark.

Today’s cheap paraffin candles are a petroleum industry by-product. In George Washington’s day, candles were made of bayberries or beeswax, probably getting one or two candles per beehive. You’d be stingy burning any beeswax candle because bees are sting-y. (Burning tallow or whale oil was cheaper, but it also smoked and stank.)

Edison’s incandescent light, a major advance, still can’t hold a torch to sunlight. With the sun pouring in the windows, any lit incandescents are barely noticeable. Enter the fluorescent.

In 1675, Jean Picard noticed that shaking a mercury barometer tube produced a faint glow. By 1856, scientists produced lights with many low-pressure gases, using high-voltage alternating current. However, the gases corroded the electrodes, burning them out too fast to have any practical use.

The noble gases argon, neon, krypton, and xenon resist oxidation, but were too expensive until Frenchman Georges Claude began distilling liquefied air to produce oxygen for hospitals and oxyacetylene-welding. The rare gases were a fortuitous byproduct, and he found that neon glowed a bright orange-red. In 1910, he showed off a neon sign in Paris.

Los Angeles car dealer Earle C. Anthony, visiting Paris in 1923, purchased two neon signs that simply spelled out “Packard.” Back home, the signs literally stopped traffic—the police had to be called to handle the chaos. By World War II, there were 2,000 neon sign companies.

Fluorescents use mercury vapor, which produces ultraviolet light. A coating of materials on the inside of the tube fluoresces, just like a black light causes many things to give off a “moonlight” glow. In fact, a black light is just a fluorescent bulb without a flourescent chemical on the glass to prevent unintentional burns.

Fluorescents, invented in 1937, were an overnight success. In just over a decade, fluorescents were producing more light than incandescents.

But it was much more than just improved lighting. As they say, “this changed everything.” Buildings can be thought of as “B.F.” or “A.F.” Before fluorescents, every major room had to have windows, as witnessed our “green-roof” campus. After fluorescents, “we don’t need no stinkin’ windows”—as in the Mueller Center basement, the Darrin Communication Center classrooms, and the current Rensselaer Union. And, of course, the endless retail outlets in windowless malls and box stores, where everyone shops, getting ready for the season of lights.