Torches, candles and lanterns with hemp wick
The most ancient illuminator that was used even by prehistoric men was the torch. Despite its drawbacks (flammability and unnecessary heating effect) it served humanity for so long that poor people used it even in the Medieval Age. Due to the drawbacks, a next generation of illuminators was required: tools that worked with a wick. In the case of these illuminators, the wick is the burning part, which was a kind of woven or spun textile material (hemp, wool or flax) hanged into liquid (lampion) or embedded into a firm material (candle).
“The Romans inherited the lampion from Egyptians and they lit their huts just like the Caesar’s palace; the only difference was that the lampions for the latter were made of gold.” – Nagybánya és Vidéke, 1899
Paraffin lamp that has beautiful flame
The next step was the development of the paraffin lamp, which is an improved version of the lantern; the only difference was that it got a glass bell and the oil was changed for paraffin, because that time there was a lot of paraffin and it was available cheaply. The advantage of these lamps was their stronger and whiter light, but the disadvantage was that they smoked badly.
Gas-lamps and electric light
Owing to cheap methane-containing gases that appeared during the 1900s, gas-lamps appeared in the streets of big cities all over the world, which was a great step forward, but due to its drawbacks, it did not have unanimous success:
“If the city would like to develop the street lighting so that it has some traces, they should mount twice as much light in order that it can evolve from the present darkness to visibility… But the lamplighter miseries would not cease even then, which are being repeated day after day. Caprices of lamplighters and the entrepreneurs’ profiteering appetite would keep on haunting, (…) who sometimes blow out sometimes ignite the poor paraffin lampions, but they never allow constant, steady and satisfactory light.” – Kiskunhalas, 1898
Besides that gas-lamps did not have enough illuminating power to light streets, their maintenance, similarly to paraffin, was even more expensive than the electric lighting.
“Today, when electric lighting is already so perfect, and also very cheap, paraffin lighting of a city can only stir scandals.” – Kiskunhalas, 1898
The bamboo fibre filament is the key of business success
The invention of the light bulb was an important pivot of the spreading of electric lighting. It is connected to Thomas Edison’s name typically, but according to science historians, he was not the first to invent it. Altogether 22 different inventors had already designed electric bulbs before him, one of them already 70 years before Edison. But while others’ inventions were too expensive for the mass production, Edison – who also purchased some of his rivals’ patents in order to improve them – managed to find a cheap filament: he used charred bamboo fibres.Another problem that was solved by Edison was that the filament burnt quickly at high temperature to the effect of air. So he created vacuum in the light bulb, increasing its lifespan. Finally, one of his most important technical innovations was the bulb socket that made the light bulb change possible.
Development of the light bulb and innovation of renowned Hungarian researcher Imre Bródy
In the 1930s, Imre Bródy discovered during his researches in the lab of the United Bulb Company (later Tungsram) that noble gases with big atomic weight were good for decreasing the evaporation of the filament and nitrogen was the most suitable for decreasing heat loss. Based on Bródy’s researches, the United Bulb Company was the first to produce light bulbs with krypton gas (later krypton-nitrogen gas mix) in the world in 1936, which were able to work for about 1000 hours.
Carbon fibre was soon replaced with wolfram that could endure even 2500 degree Celsius temperature (that occurs after switching on). We used these bulbs during the past 50 years, despite that they work with low efficiency. Many people saw and see the solution of this problem in the compact fluorescent lamp.
The oldest working light bulb in the world and the business policy of planned obsolescence
Although light bulbs usually give light during 1000 hours nowadays, there are longer lasting light bulbs as well. One of them, the oldest – more than a hundred years old – light bulb (the record keeper) works at the fire station of Livermore, California. It has been illuminating continuously since 1901, with just a few-hour intermission. In 1972, the fire brigade noticed that this light bulb had not blown out for a very long time. The bulb got into the book of Guinness records and became a touristic spectacle. It has its own webpage where you can observe it through a webcam. This lamp is a fine evidence for the so called planned obsolescence policy strategy that was elaborated during the overproduction world crisis in the 1920s. The point of the planned obsolescence is to plan after how long time should a certain product go wrong. Thus, companies plan and produce less durable products, which break down sooner, instead of durable ones in order to urge customers to repurchase as soon as possible.
Translated by Zita Aknai
- Villám világitásunk. Kun-Halas, 9 January, 1898 (2.) 2.
- Puskás Ferenc: A világítástechnika története. Fizika, informatika, kémia alapok, 2001. (10). 6.
- Nagybánya és Vidéke, 5 February, 1899 (25). 6.
- Esztergom és Vidéke, 25 December, 1896 (103).
- Bulow, J. (1986). An economic theory of planned obsolescence. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 101(4), 729-749.
- Guiltinan, J. (2009). Creative destruction and destructive creations: environmental ethics and planned obsolescence. Journal of business ethics, 89(1), 19-28.
- Krajewski, M. (2014). The great lightbulb conspiracy. IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) Spectrum, 51(10), 56-61.
- LP Firefighter Foundation: Livermore's Centennial Light Bulb (centennialbulb.org) Access time: 4 October 2019.