Friday, January 21, 2011

Not Quite a Book Review: Artificial Sunshine by Maureen Dillon

Artificial Sunshine isn't the kind of book you think you might enjoy.  I saw it on the shelf and was drawn to it because I'm kind of a geek about artificial lighting - really, all kinds of lighting, including daylight harvesting.  But there I was at McKay's Used Books and here was this peculiar title shining down on me.  I picked it out, opened it up, and decided it had to go home with me.

Maureen Dillon, the book's author, spends a fair amount of time discoursing on the social aspects of artificial lighting, and some also expounding on the technology itself.  The social aspects are what fascinated me the most.

Consider the word "inglenook."  I've heard it from time to time, mostly as a brand name on cheap wine.  From the Old Scots, the word means "chimney corner."  A classic inglenook is almost a room in its own right, an enclosure around the fireplace.  In the bitter northern isles of Scotland, building a box around the fire - and then staying inside the box with the fire - would make the most of the fire's output.  Until technology developed that could sustain a small flame that burned brightly, the larger but dimmer flames of heating and cooking fires had to suffice for providing light after dusk.  And poor light it was.  Poor heat for that matter, but at the time the technology was mostly an open fire on an open hearth; cruder households handled smoke by having a hole in the roof.  Whatever warm air you might generate with such a fire went straight up through the hole, but you got the added advantage of slowly smoking whatever food was hanging from your roof's rafters, so the food kept a bit longer.  The light it gave was dismal and dim; activity slowed way down and huddled 'round the fire after the sun went down.  If you were a little better off than some, you might have an oil lamp.

In its earliest iteration, an oil lamp wasn't any more sophisticated than a bowl with a spout.  You'd think the spout was for pouring, but in fact the wick was laid up the spout, until it poked above the edge.  The lamp's flame was there at the tip of the spout.  The next technological improvement was the inclusion of a second bowl a short distance below the first, to catch the drips that inevitably seeped over the side of the lamp from the wick.

Oil lamps begat rush lights - rush lights are marsh reeds soaked in tallow, held in a holder that would permit easy adjustment of the reed itself as the material burned out.  Rush lights evolved into candles, but it bears mentioning that candles cost a lot more than rush lights.  Many households kept using rush lights even though candles lasted longer; the cost differential was such that rush lights were still cheaper per hour than candles, even though the candle's was a better quality, brighter light.

But oil lamps were where the real light was to be had.  Wick development, flame management in the form of better chimneys and air feeds under the flame, and finally the development of the incandescent mantle (like on an old-fashioned Coleman lantern) made the oil lamp the biggest light for the money.  It left candles, well, in the dark.

Still relying on a flame, the gas lamp came next.  The gas lamp came on the heels of the new technology of in-home gas generators (lighting with acetylene!), and was itself the impetus behind gas lines run underground into the home.  Gas lines were at first privately owned, so utility bills were paid not to a governmental entity but to a private venture.  And since metering wasn't up to the challenge, the gas provider would count up your gas fixtures in the household, and charge a rate based on that.

Before lamps, there really wasn't such a thing as night life.  Only the very richest segment of the population, royalty and nobility, could afford torchieres, early candles and the several busy servants required to keep all those fixtures lit and filled.  They were high-maintenance items, and insanely hazardous.  The servants weren't just there for keeping the fires going, they were also alert to keep extra fires from starting.  And even so, firing up a raft of torchieres wasn't something you did every day.  That was kept in reserve for special occasions.

By the time the American colonies had gotten started, such things as artificial lighting were already well underway.  In fact, the brutally efficient New England whaling industry would hunt the mighty sperm whale nearly to extinction in the Atlantic in pursuit of fuel for oil lamps.  But Artificial Sunshine is a uniquely European book, as there was no recorded history in North America of the development of artificial lighting until white settlers landed there.  The economically and technologically progressive European countries drove the development of artificial lighting in step with development of other things; the more light you can generate per unit of fuel, the longer you can make the fuel last, the longer you can keep machines working and generating profit.  So light = money.

Odd trivia: up until 1973, sperm whale oil was the primary component of automatic transmission fluid.

The book comes to an abrupt end with the development of the electric light.  That makes sense; electric lighting drove a lot of standardization as the light bulb had to be made by specialized equipment that was expensive to make and difficult to operate; a smart plumber with a hammer and soldering gun could knock together a gas lamp in an afternoon from flat sheets of metal and some pipe.  So where the gas lamp supported small craft guilds and local industry, the electric lamp supported large companies and centralized manufacturing.  Add in the much greater fire safety of the electric lamp and the near-infinite comparative convenience of merely flipping a switch to have the light come on, and the gas lamp was extinguished fairly quickly.

Ha ha ha.  I pun.

In my own home I have a small collection of pressure lamps, mostly old Coleman lanterns.  One is a particularly handsome model from about 1939.  In terms of lumens per watt of energy, they're disastrous.  A good pressure lantern generates maybe TWO lumens per watt compared to a typical light bulb's 12-14; is it any wonder then that the lantern that's too bright to look at is also hot enough to cook over.  It still beats a candle's 1/2 lumen per watt, though.  I'm also taken with oil lamps, and have an oil mantle lamp, an old Aladdin.

Even something as ubiquitous as a plain ol' incandescent bulb has more poetry and warmth - literally, that last bit - than the modern compact fluorescent or LED.  Artificial lighting is so deeply ingrained into our modern societies that we don't even think about it anymore.  But way back when, it was developing and society was shaped by it, even as other developing technologies shaped society.  It's all dovetailed so neatly together.  Humanity puttered along in its current form for fifty thousand years or so, but really the greatest advancements have come only since about the 1400's.  Six hundred years, and electric lighting for about the last hundred.

What is changing and developing now, that is changing and shaping us now?

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