3 Minutes On… Electric Lights

3 Minutes On… Electric Lights


Last time we talked about microphones, and
how, as transducers, they converted sound energy into electrical energy. Well, electric lights are also, technically
speaking, another kind of transducer. They just go in the other direction, converting
electrical energy into light. Before the adoption of electric lighting in
the late 1800s, we made due with whatever we could set on fire that didn’t actively
scream immediately on immolation. Torches, campfires, whale fat, kerosene, various
gasses. Well, the whales probably screamed when we
harvested their fat, but that’s long before it reached the end user. Where did the modern lighting we enjoy today,
start? Well, Thomas Edison in 1880 might be the first
thing to pop into your head. But you’d be wrong. In fact, you’d have
to go back about 70 years earlier than that. In 1809, Cornish chemist and inventor Sir
Humphry Davy was said to have connected a battery to two, nearly-touching, charcoal
rods causing them to glow, creating the first practical electric light: the carbon arc lamp… Unfortunately, despite being almost 20 times
brighter than existing forms of non-electrical lighting, it was too impractical: it required
Volta’s “voltaic pile” (the predecessor to the modern battery) which was messy and
expensive. Interestingly, they were also considered too
bright; their harsh light making them unsuitable for indoor use. Eventually, arc light technology, and electrical
power, matured, being practical enough to replace the existing, dimmer gas and oil lamp
lighting that had taken hold in the interim. Arc lights found their way into many European
cities by the end of the 1870’s. And the United States, in particular, very quickly
adopted arc lighting, having roughly 90,000 arc light installations by 1884. Arc lighting fit the bill for the outdoors,
but that still leaves the need for safe indoor lighting. While the gas lighting that replaced
candle and oil lights burned brighter and cheaper, due to it’s noxious fumes and explosive
leaks, it was potentially rather deadly. In 1802, before discovering the arc light,
Sir Humphry Davy also happened to create the first instance of a light created by heating
up something. Also known as an incandescent light. Passing electric current through a thin platinum
strip – also called a filament – caused it to glow. While the strip didn’t emit nearly enough
light, and didn’t last very long, it did spark the imagination of scientists who would continue
the hunt for a better design over next 75 years. In 1835 Scottish inventor and author, James
Bowman Lindsay was the first to publicly demonstrate an early form of continuous, somewhat practical
incandescent lighting. He claimed to even be able to read and pen
letters by it. Having satisfied his own personal interest in the concept, he moved on to other
projects, leaving it to a long line of other scientists to further develop and improve
upon the technology. Over 45 years later, Edison’s Menlo Park
research team would eventually patent a design for a bulb that lasted 150 hours, and later
improvements extended it to 1,200 hours. The bulb consisted of a bamboo-derived filament
in a glass vacuum tube to prevent oxidation. The electric incandescent light bulb was commercially
viable, and finally made electric lighting a realistic choice. That’s all for now. To read more more on
this topic, check out the links in the description. If you have a suggestion for a topic you’d
like to see covered, let me know in the comments. If you found this informative and want to
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