The Evolution of
Artificial Light

Jane Brox
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
It's electrifying. It's a charge. It can be shocking. It's may even be enlightening.

Actually, Brilliant is none of these, although it is packed with information, and some parts are not without fascination. For instance, there's this: the eternal state secret of electrical power --- "Electricity cannot be stored. It must be generated as needed and consumed within moments of its generation."

    The supply must continually adjust itself to fluctuating demand, and a power plant must have sufficient capacity to meet all its customers' needs at any given moment of the day.

And when everything goes blooey: the great blackout of November 1965, where 30 million people in the United States and Canada lost their power, some for more than thirteen hours. According to Brox, to get everything humming again was an exacting process, because "Power was needed to beget power."

There's a fine chapter on the World's Columbian Exposition, in Chicago, in 1893. Many who came to see it had never even seen an electric light-bulb. (The most light they had been exposed to was that of moonlight, or candles, or at best, a kerosene lantern.)

In Chicago: "Never had there been so much light in one place --- and it was all electric: 200,000 incandescent bulbs traced the edges of the edifices, and countless more lit interiors of the massive exhibition halls."

    The incandescent bulbs, the arc lamps, the searchlights, the fireworks --- separately each would have astonished nineteenth-century eyes; together they overwhelmed.

§     §     §

Though I grew up with electricity, when we went camping, or slumming, our way was lighted with candles, lanterns and Coleman lamps. I can remember friends who lived with, worked by, and studied with kerosene lamps, not because dim yellow light made one more fetching, but because they were poor. In their homes, after dark, family and visitors gathered near the lamps, most often in the kitchen with its brightness and warmth and food and companionship. The electric light, as Brox suggests, was to later separate friends and family.

Some of the most engaging parts of Brilliant have to do with the world before the incandescent bulb. Until a century ago, the dying of the light put an end to most activity. Cities rolled up the sidewalks. During the time of the new moon, people stayed indoors not only out of fear, but to avoid running into things, or falling.

This is a diary entry from mid-eighteenth century Paris: "I have known fogs so thick that you could not see the flame in [the] lamps; so thick that the coachmen have had to get down from their boxes and feel their way along the walls. Passers-by, unwilling and unwitting, collided in the tenebrous streets; and you marched in at you neighbour's door under the impression that is was your own." How to make it through the streets? You employed the blind:

    One year the fogs were so dense, that a new expedient was tried; which was, to engage blind men, pensioners, as guides ... You took hold of the skirt of the blind man's coat, and off he started, stepping firmly, while you more dubiously followed, towards your destination.

One of the most interesting characters to emerge from this chronicle is Nikola Tesla. I had always heard that he was some sort of purposeless nut, on the order of Buckminister Fuller, who never brought more than a few of his dreams to reality ... but Brox tells us that he was the one hired by Westinghouse to design and build the generators at Niagara Falls, the first major electrical project in America; the one that proved that we could have "power untethered from its source, freed from the lay of the land and the flow of rivers, abstract and seemingly without limit."

Tesla was a bit kooky: he said that he had visions of his Niagara project in America long before it came to pass. He religiously avoided the sunlight, and related that passing under a bridge "put pressure on his skull." He said that he got "a fever from looking at a peach ... and if a piece of camphor was anywhere in the house, it caused me the keenest discomfort."

He did have smarts enough to favor AC (alternating current) over DC (direct current). Edison invested heavily in the latter, said that AC was only good for frying people in electric chairs. It might have been perfect for that, but DC did not, it turned out, lend itself to long-distance transmission.

I recall the discomforts of DC well. When I was the right age, they shipped me off to one of those ancient colleges in New England whose dormitories had apparently been wired by Edison himself. To operate our radios and fans, we had to buy "alternators" --- cranky black boxes which we hid in the closet under a bunch of old pillows. (We were oblivious to the danger of fire, just wanted to get those noisy, buzzing creatures out of earshot.)

One of the most scary chapters, towards the end, suggests that our generous use of electricity to light up our lives will, someday, have to stop. The coal that powers 55% of American power plants is polluting, ruinous to the world at large ... as are the street-lights we set up everywhere. Human circadian rhythms are compromised, territories of various animals and flyways of birds have been destroyed by the lights that consume, the author estimates, an unnecessary billion watts a year. There will come a time, the author opines, when we may be forced to return to that dark world enjoyed by our ancestors, where we will, once again be able to see our way by the light of the Milky Way ... now obscured by our obsessive need for brilliance.

Thus you and I will return to the world of medieval sleep, where we'll go to bed with the cows and wake up with the cockerels. Historian A. Roger Ekrich reveals how the ancients lived their nights ... so much differently than our own: "They would go to bed soon after sundown, sleep for four or five hours --- this was called 'first sleep' --- and then wake up an hour or two after midnight." Some worked by candlelight; some visited neighbors; some robbed nearby orchards. But often people stayed abed, until they fell back into "a lighter, dream-filled sleep --- called 'second sleep' --- that lasted until sunrise." One historian reported,

    The early evening sleep was primarily deep, slow-wave sleep and the morning episode consisted largely of REM, or rapid eye movement, sleep characterized by vivid dreams. The wakeful period, brain wave measurement indicated, resembled a state of meditation.

--- Lolita Lark
Go to a
from this book

Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH