Saturday, November 19, 2011

Just Finished Reading

Most of us romanticize candlelight and firelight.  But Brilliant: the Evolution of Artificial Light reminds us that, for millennia, we have searched for brighter, safer, more dependable and less noxious light than the open flame.
Author Jane Brox traces our progress from the stone lamps that originally illuminated the creation of the Lascaux cave paintings to the incandescent and fluorescent bulbs that brightened two World Fairs: the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago and the New York World’s Fair in 1939.  Both of these Fairs gave glimpses of fantastic and not-too-distant futures when light and power would be readily available for everyone.
English Regency Argand Chandelier, c. 1820, from Marvin Alexander, Ltd. in New York City
Artificial light extends the day into night, in our homes and streets and public spaces, so that we can explore life beyond our (literally) daily routine, beyond the dictates of the sun’s rising and setting.  Historically, artificial light provided more time for entertainment and commerce and study.  It made work places, especially factories, farms and mines, safer and our seas and shorelines more navigable.  But artificial light has, also, always been a commodity and another signifier of those who have and those who do not.
Sea View of Cape Poge Lighthouse, c.1840-49, by Charles Hubbard from the Smithsonian American Art Museum
Brilliant explores the downsides of more and more abundant artificial light and quick electric energy… our dependence on, at first, animal fats, especially whale oils, and later, fossil fuels… our vulnerability to aerial attacks during war… and our current inadequate power and delivery systems that are often easily overwhelmed by winter weather, natural disasters and even overuse.  We have actually changed the night sky with light pollution, thereby affecting astronomy, the migration of wildlife and even our own individual ability to see and sleep.  Amazing!

I’m not sure there is one answer to the problems of energy efficiency and pollution.  But I do think all of us are much more aware of the issues each and every time we switch on our favorite lamp.  Perhaps it all comes back to our idea of light and the flame.  Incandescent bulbs were developed as a better candle.  And Jane writes “such stubborn fondness for the age of incandescence is more than simply nostalgia.  It’s testimony to how much incandescent light has meant, and how perfectly suited it still seems to be, to modern life: the steady, brilliant light of a speeding century… versatile, dependable, and economical (and in the end, democratic)… “old-fashioned” bulbs still shed a more satisfactory light than anything yet developed to replace them”.

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