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History of Lamps

Updated on February 19, 2011

The introduction of the lamp marked one of the first steps in man's advancement toward civilization. When lamps came into use has not been determined, although simple concave stone vessels for holding fat and a wick made of twisted grass or fiber have been found in the Magdalenian-stage cave dwellings of Paleolithic man. Vessels recovered in Dordogne, France, already have a hollow spout for the wick.

Similar vessels made of clay have been discovered in the ruins of the long-buried cities of the Mesopotamian plain. Pottery lamps consisting of low dishes with a circular place for receiving oil and a wick made of linen cloth were used in Egypt of the Old Kingdom (circa 3110-2155 B.C.), but not until the Middle Kingdom (2052-1786 B.C.) was the edge hollowed out to support the wick.

Greek and Roman Lamps

Stone lamps shaped like soup plates with an elongated lip on each side have been found in the excavated ruins of palaces at Knossos and Hagia Triada in Crete and in the royal tombs at Mycenae in Greece; an interesting variation has the bowl of the lamp supported on a thick column, something like a candlestick. Homer mentions a festival of the lamps in the Odyssey (19:34), written some time before 700 RC. In the 5th century B.C. the Greeks used flaming torches and deep torchlike lamps for their traditional ceremonies and for the eternal lights kept burning in their temples, but domestic lamps were not in common use. Rome borrowed the use of candles and candlesticks from the Etruscans, but began to use lamps in the 4th century B.C. and eventually spread their use throughout the Roman empire. They developed a closed vessel to protect the oil from impurities, with one or more holes for wicks and another opening for the passage of air. Although usually made of terracotta or bronze, more elaborate specimens were fashioned from gold, silver, and other materials, and were decorated with animal or human shapes.

The Middle Ages

Even more elaborate were the bronze, silver, and gold lamps of the Middle Ages, taking the shape of a foot, a dolphin, a sailing. ship, a winged horse, and many others. Arabian, Chinese, and Japanese lamps also achieved forms of great beauty. But although the external appearance was highly developed, little attempt was made to improve the illumination afforded.

Source

Lamps in North America

The only indigenous lamp found on the North American continent was the shallow soapstone vessel of the Eskimo, sometimes made also of bone, clay, or wood, using the oil of seal, walrus, or whale, and a wick of dried moss. They served in addition for cooking and a source of heat and can still be found in some remote regions.

Tallow or wax candles were generally used for light by the American colonists in the beginning of the 17th century, although the Pilgrims brought with them some forged or castiron lamps of Dutch make, which they called "Betty lamps," from the German besser, meaning "better." The earliest examples were open-slot types, but later a hinged lid was added. The wick was supported by an angular, semicircular iron secured to the inner bottom. At the back was an upright handle, to which a pointed hook was attached by a link, so that it could be suspended from the back of a chair or thrust into a crevice between the great stones at the side of the fireplace.

These lamps were still used in New England as late as 1790. In 1680 a tinsmith of Newburyport, Mass., began the first manufacture of lamps in the colonies, producing tin Bettys. By 1720 a few pewter and brass lamps were being made, among the best known being those of Richard Graves in Boston and later in Salem, Massachusetts and Henry Shrimpton of Boston.

Among the first to experiment on improving the illumination from lamps was Benjamin Franklin, who devised two round wick tubes placed so that the distance between them equaled the diameter of one, creating an upward draft that increased the heat and the consumption of the liberated carbon, thus adding to the strength of the light and decreasing the smoke.

Period of Invention

It was not until 1780 that any significant improvement was made in the construction of oil lamps. In that year Aime Argand, a Swiss physicist, introduced a tubular wick attached to a tube which extended through the oil reservoir and opened into the base of the lamp, thus supplying an abundance of oxygen to the flame and creating sufficient heat to consume all the carbon and to prevent the escaping of smoke. He used a sheet-iron chimney with a hood opening over the flame, and it was only by accident that it was discovered that a glass chimney greatly enhanced the light. Shortly afterward, a spur wheel was attached to a tight-fitting support that held a flat, ribbonlike wick, thus enabling regulation of the flame for the first time. With the introduction of kerosine for general use about 1850, hundreds of lamps were designed to use this cheap illuminant, which still serves as the chief source of light in some sections. Most of them, with the exception of smaller hand lamps, use the principle of the Argand burner.

The use of gas for illumination was discovered as early as 1792 by William Murdock, a British engineer. In 1808 gas lighting was installed on Pall Mall in London, and in 1812 the first company was chartered to provide such lighting for both public and private use. The open flame was so hazardous that it was not until Carl Auer von Welsbach, an Austrian chemist, introduced the Welsbach mantle in 1885-1886, which produced a steady white light, that gas illumination could be considered an improvement over the oil lamp.

With the appearance of gas no radical changes in the requirements of lamps were necessary, since its use was confined to wall and ceiling fixtures, with the result that all through the gasburning era and during the first 40 years of the electric light the designs for lamps were largely reminiscent of the old candle and oil-burning forms.

It was from the commercially practicable incandescent electric lamp, produced by Thomas Alva Edison in 1879 and by Joseph Wilson Snow, working independently, in 1879-1880, that the present high standards of interior illumination developed. The modern electric glass bulb encloses a tungsten wire or filament in a vacuum or inert gas, and it is this wire, when charged with electricity, which supplies the light for modern portable lamps. The efficiency of the lamp is rated in terms of output to watts consumed; generally, the larger the wattage, the more efficient the lamp. Intensity, therefore, is roughly proportional to the wattage of the lamp.

Another form of modern illumination is provided by the fluorescent electric lamp. The long, slender tube of the lamp is coated on the inside with special chemicals which fluoresce or glow when struck by the invisible ultraviolet radiation produced from the discharge of low preSsure mercury vapor, which is started by electrons emanating from a filament-type electrode at each end of the tube. These tubular lamps in soft colors are invaluable for creating "mood" lighting in the house. They consume less electricity for the amount of light produced and radiate considerably less heat than incandescent lamps.

Use of Lamps

Before 1800 only a few small portable lamps had been made. English manufacturers first made them of tin, brass, and pewter, with a single wick. So few lighting devices appear in inventories of the 17th and 18th centuries that one reaches the conclusion that illumination was available for only the barest necessity. Lamps and candles were kept in a central place, generally the kitchen, and carried about the house as needed. Keeping a lamp, or even a candlestick, in the room in which it was used is a custom dating from the early 19th century.

Today it is possible to enjoy the desired amount of lighting for any particular need in any part of the house. Lighting, in addition, serves the function of creating atmosphere, and anyone unaware of it misses an opportunity for enhancing a room. With artificial light decorative objects can be revealed in all their beauty, detail, and color in proportion to their importance in the decorative scheme. It is possible to brighten, to dim, or even to change the appearance of colors with the new tinted bulbs; to accent or to suppress forms, to create or to eliminate shadows, and to throw tinted light on flat surfaces.

The coupling of certain words, such as bright and gay, colorful and exciting, indicate how closely related lighting and feeling are.

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      khmohsin 7 years ago

      very informative hub ,, keep it up

    • dilipchandra12 profile image

      Dilip Chandra 7 years ago from India

      awesome information.. nice article.

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