The Evolution of Artificial Light Sources

A Walk through Time

Since the discovery of fire, humans have strived to create better and brighter light sources.  Some of the first origins of artificial light go all the way back to 500 BC when bamboo pipes carried natural gas from volcanos to light the streets of ancient China.

Later, the Romans lit the front of their homes with oil lanterns and had special servants who tended to them.  In 1417, the Mayor of London created a law that required all homes hang a lantern in the front during the winter.

In the 1700’s, light fixtures were equipped with poorly made oil lamps and candles. Most of these emitted a bad odor and produced quite a bit of smoke. It wasn’t until the 1800’s that gas lighting replaced candles and oil lamps.

Sir Humphry Davy created the first carbon arc lamp in 1809. Although this lamp was very bright, it was powered by an early battery which drained very quickly. The first patent for an incandescent lamp was issued in 1841 to Frederick de Moleyns.  Moleyns’ lamp was made of glass and a charcoal based filament with a partial vacuum. The charcoal would cause the lamp to become dingy and dim.

The late 1800’s produced some significant strides in the progression of artificial light sources. A patent for the incandescent lamp with a carbon filament was issued in 1874 to Henry Woodward and Mathew Evens.  Woodward and Evens would eventually sell their patent to Thomas Edison.  Thomas Edison and his group began testing many different materials to create a more efficient carbonized filament. The Edison group discovered that a lamp with a carbonized bamboo filament would burn for up to 1200 hours.  For this, Edison received his second incandescent lamp patent. Although Edison did not invent the first light bulb, his “Edison screw in lamp” would remain a staple in the way we still use household lamps today.

The tungsten filament lamps were developed in 1911 by William D. Coolidge. These would be improved in 1913 by Irving Langmuir, who discovered that filling the glass envelope with an inert gas and twisting the filament improved the performance. Up until 1925 all lamps were made of clear glass. Marvin Pipkin invented a way to reduce glare by adding a silica coating to the inside, thus making the first incandescent frosted lamps.

The late 1950’s brought us into the “halogen era” when scientists at GE would bring us the first halogen lamp. Halogen lamps would prove to last longer but required proper handling.  These scientists continued to work to provide us with more efficient light sources. Edward Hammer created the first spiral compact fluorescent lamp in 1976. 

As with many other products, the first LED was discovered by accident. Gary Pittman and James Biard were working on a laser diode when they discovered the first “light emitting diode” (LED) in 1961.  The first LED lights were used as indicator and display lights in the early 1970’s.  Many scientists would continue working on LED technology by developing different colored diodes.

The last component needed to develop a bright white LED was invented in 1993 by Shuji Nakamura. Mr. Nakamura developed the first bright blue emitting diode. Today these diodes are used with different phosphor materials. These materials are used to create different Kelvin temperatures that are used in currently manufactured lamps.

And we look forward to where new and continuously improving technology will bring us in the future 

Kevin SmithComment