Lightbulb Moment: How Electric Lights Made the Modern World

History student Max Foley-Kemp wrote this piece as part of the first year module ‘Ten Technologies that Changed the World’. The assignment was to write a blog-post arguing for why one particular technology has changed the world.

On the 17th of January 1994, in the early hours of the morning, a magnitude 6.7 earthquake struck Los Angeles. Shaken from their sleep, Angelenos awoke to find an unpowered cityscape shrouded in unfamiliar darkness. Over the next few hours, numerous alarmed phone calls were made to the city’s famous Griffith Observatory, and even to 911. Anxious callers were worried about bright lights and a “giant silvery cloud” stretching over the city. Was it a toxic gas leak? A group of unidentified aircraft? It was the Milky Way: visible, for almost all of humanity’s existence, from everywhere on the surface of Earth nearly every night and yet, to some residents of Los Angeles, an alien sight. 

In the space of less than 120 years, from the introduction of the first electric streetlights in Paris in 1878 to that darkling morning in 1994, electric lighting had become a ubiquitous and fundamental part of modern life – one so omnipresent that some city-dwellers couldn’t recognise a nightscape without it. This post is dedicated to that remarkable rise – to how the electric light, always glowing in the background, became the foundation of our modern, technological world, and to what that says about our peculiar place in history.  

In the beginning, there was darkness 

To understand the real importance of electric, artificial lighting, we have to think about what came before it – because for most of human history, the only reliable source of light in the long night hours was the open flame. We got better at using it of course – flickering, smoky wood fires gave way to candles, and then to oil, gas, and paraffin lamps, but these all shared many of the same drawbacks. 

Moreover, they were all – in modern terms – dim, wildly inefficient, and widely inaccessible. Nobel Prize winning Economist Bill Nordhaus, investigated several historic light sources in a 1998 paper, which compared the labour cost involved in generating their flames to the light, measured in lumens, they produced. Comparing a wood-burning fire to a modern lightbulb, Nordhaus found that it would take one of our ancestors 60 hours of gathering and chopping wood to produce the same amount of light that a modern lightbulb releases in just one hour. 

Without artificial light, our lives were bound and made much smaller by the limits of the day-night cycle. Inside, it is nearly impossible to read or write, and much harder to socialise or work without good light after nightfall. A lack of access to artificial light was a lack of access to opportunity, and it was a hard barrier to forms of social, cultural, and economic life we take for granted. 

The conquest of night  

The arrival of electric light in the 19th Century began to change everything. Davy’s arc light, its first working form, saw some adoption in public and street lighting in the 1870s, but it was really the introduction of the modern lightbulb – cheaper, brighter, and subject to faster improvement than anything before it – a decade later that democratised illumination, and brought abundant artificial light into our lives. 

Electric illumination also accelerated urbanisation in other ways. AC power networks, which first saw adoption in cities in the 1880s, allowed streetlight systems to stretch over vast new urban areas, outshining and outpacing older gas light systems in cost and safety. Electric street lighting sat at the forefront of a range of new technologies, like public transportation and public sewer systems, that made urban life safer and more attractive. The population of Manhattan, which began to electrify in the 1880s, boomed with the coming of the electric light, nearly doubling in size between 1880 and 1900. 

Indeed, by the 20th Century, it had made lighting so abundant that light could become a medium of art and expression in itself. In the 1920s and 30s, vibrant and futuristic neon lights came to define the iconic street scenes of Piccadilly Circus and Times Square. Arguably, electric light never faded from the foreground of our cultural imagination of the future – think the neon megalopolis of Blade Runner, or the glowing night-time cityscape of Shanghai or Dubai today. In the second half of the 20th Century, sophisticated and highly choreographed light shows, of the kind found in Pink Floyd concerts, or national New Year celebrations, became staples of live music and public art and ceremony.  

“The medium of modernity”  

In the space of less than a century, electric lighting came to become one of the best models of the power of technological abundance we have. Constantly improving in cost and quality, it transformed access to artificial light – for most of history a precious and expensive luxury – into a ubiquitous and insistent reality, and even a plaything and source of entertainment. Indeed, it remains a site of constant innovation and discovery. 

The history of electric lighting is at once social, cultural, spatial, economic, geographical, and more. It reordered basic patterns of human life and opened up new possibilities for human flourishing. Certainly, it depended on an ecosystem of other technological developments – for instance industrial mass production and electrical generation and transmission – and its story is not so much of one “lightbulb moment” but of many, but as Sandy Isenstadt writes in Electric Light: An Architectural History, it was “as fundamental to the making of the modern world as any system of transportation, communication, or energy and as momentous as industrial urbanization itself.”