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History of Lighting and Lamps

From Mary Bellis,
Your Guide to Inventors.
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Pre-electrical Lamps

The first lamp was invented around 70,000 BC. A hollow rock, shell or other natural found object was filled with moss or a similar material that was soaked with animal fat and ignited. Humans began imitating the natural shapes with manmade pottery, alabaster, and metal lamps. Wicks were later added to control the rate of burning. Around the 7th century BC, the Greeks began making terra cotta lamps to replace handheld torches. The word lamp is derived from the Greek word lampas, meaning torch.

Oil Lamps

In the 18th century, the central burner was invented, a major improvement in lamp design. The fuel source was now tightly enclosed in metal, and a adjustable metal tube was used to control the intensity of the fuel burning and intensity of the light. Around the same time, small glass chimneys were added to lamps to both protect the flame and control the flow of air to the flame. Ami Argand, a Swiss chemist is credited with first developing the principal of using an oil lamp with a hollow circular wick surrounded by a glass chimney in 1783.

Lighting Fuels

Early lighting fuels consisted of olive oil, beeswax, fish oil, whale oil, sesame oil, nut oil, and similar substances. These were the most commonly used fuels until the late 18th century. However, the ancient Chinese collected natural gas in skins that was used for illumination.

In 1859, drilling for petroleum oil began and the kerosene (a petroleum derivative) lamp grew popular, first introduced in 1853 in Germany. Coal and natural gas lamps were also becoming wide-spread. Coal gas was first used as a lighting fuel as early as 1784.

Gas Lights

In 1792, the first commercial use of gas lighting began when William Murdoch used coal gas for lighting his house in Redruth, Cornwall. German inventor Freidrich Winzer (Winsor) was the first person to patent coal gas lighting in 1804 and a "thermolampe" using gas distilled from wood was patented in 1799. David Melville received the first U.S. gas light patent in 1810.

Early in the 19th century, most cities in the United States and Europe had streets that were gaslight. Gas lighting for streets gave way to low pressure sodium and high pressure mercury lighting in the 1930s and the development of the electric lighting at the turn of the 19th century replaced gas lighting in homes.

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