Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light

The plural of anecdote isn’t quite social history, but it can be illuminating. What was it like to paint on the walls of a cave by the flickering light of an animal fat lamp? What was it like at night in a medieval european town, when a strict curfew was imposed, householders needed to give their keys over to a magistrate, and someone walking about on the streets was presumed a criminal? What was it like to be a coal miner in the age when light was flame that ignited the methane collecting in dark mines? What was it like in cities, when increased indoor lighting and street lighting enabled new forms of after-dark socializing, and a new word for it, “nightlife.” What was it like at the Worlds Fairs that showed the latest in lighting as a symbol of Progress? What was it like in London, when blackout rules darkened windows, streets, vehicles? What was it like to be in a US rural village as electrification finally brought relief from manual washing and ironing?

In Brilliant, Jane Brox picks anecdotes spanning the history of lighting, from stone age lamps, through the various materials and processes used in making and tending candles, through whale oil, gas, kerosene, and electric light; and the environmental, health, and system risks of the current electrical system. The story bounces around the world in an unmethodical fashion, with anecdotes about life lit by seal lamps in the arctic, 60 years of repeated attempts to build a lighthouse off a perilous coastline south of England, valleys and villages drowned by the TVA. Most of the early stories are set in Europe, and then the narratives jump the Atlantic, with electrification told from the perspective of the US. The book was published in 2010, but the ongoing story of rural electrification in India and China, using leapfrog technology, isn’t mentioned at all.

One loose argument across the book is the way that the use lighting follows socioeconomic stratification – in earlier times the wealthy could afford steadier, better-smelling beeswax candles, while the poor made do with smelly, messy, flickering hard-to-maintain animal fat and rush lights; in later times, gas lighting and then electric lighting made their way to rich areas before poor ones, increasing the separation among neighborhoods, and between city and country. An argument through the book’s second half is that the gas and later electric lighting tie people into a connected system that is more vulnerable than the household-managed lamps and candles of the past. All the way through, the author uses anecdotes to illustrate (not with any sustained argument) that new types of lighting came along with changes in life and work – 3-shift factory work with the availability of 24-hour lighting, the rise of window-shopping enabled by light and plate glass, changes in sleep patterns with household electrification.

This isn’t the book to read to understand the workings of lighting technology – explanations are cursory, there are no pictures, and Amazon reviewers point out numerous mistakes. But the progression of anecdotes have enough resources that the impatient reader with Google, or the patient reader with access to library, can look up pictures and technical explanations.

That assessment can serve for the book as a whole. The author didn’t do original research – the stories are gleaned from many secondary sources, mostly books. The book is impressionistic, not comprehensive or strongly argued. But if you aren’t an expert in the topic already, you will learn many interesting things about the history of lighting, and have jumping off points to sources to explore further. For me, the book had answers to questions I’d desultorily wondered about over time. How were igloos kept warm and lit? What does “snuffing a candle” mean? Why the characteristic design of a miner’s headlamp? What was it with mirrors in palaces? (amplifying dim lighting sources, not just vanity). In traditional Jewish Friday night services there is an (often-omitted) section from the Mishnah about the lighting materials permitted for the Sabbath – why did the different sorts of wicks and fuels matter? (because cheaper materials flickered, were smoky and smelly).

I am a big fan of the social history of science and technology. My favorite books in the genre combine original research and/or original analysis, a coherent picture of the topic, and an argument built from the elements of story. This book doesn’t take a place in the pantheon of works by historians including Schwartz Cowan, Nye, Cronon, McNeill (I’ll stop now). But it taught me things I didn’t know, inspired reflection about things often taken for granted, and has references for further exploration.

So I enjoyed the book, and recommend it for people who are interested in the topic, and would enjoy it despite its limitations.

2 thoughts on “Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light”

  1. tech is culture, culture is the proper subject of history.
    Moreso than drum & trumpet history. On the bad side, historians tend to the schtick of working from other historians.

    Better, often, when it’s from a fresh POV,
    I thought of 2 things that electrified me, Jacob Bronowski on PBS when we were kids, and e digby baltzell, who’s Philly/Boston book set the standard of study for me as a freshman.

  2. I read Puritan Boston/Quaker Philadelphia when I moved to Boston after college, after growing up in Philly. Great book. Never saw the Bronowski. Re: working from other historians, nobody is sheltered from the prevailing winds of conversation. At the meta level, history is doing argument and interpretation, and those ideas are related to other ideas of the time – how could it be otherwise?

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