From Fire to LEDs: Brief History of Lighting Technology

Lighting has been a fundamental aspect of human life since the dawn of time. From early man's use of fire to modern-day electric lighting, the ways in which we light our homes, streets, and cities have evolved tremendously over time. This article will explore the history of lighting, from ancient times to the present day.

Lighting refers to the deliberate use of light to achieve practical or aesthetic effects. It includes the use of both artificial light sources like lamps and light fixtures, as well as natural illumination by capturing daylight.
The development of lighting technologies and lamps has a rich history that spans thousands of years. From the widespread control of fire by early humans around 125,000 BC to the invention of oil lamps around 4500 BC and candles around 3000 BC, humans have been finding ways to illuminate their surroundings for a very long time.

Ancient Lighting

The earliest form of lighting was likely fire, which early humans used for warmth, cooking, and protection from predators (Picture 1). As civilization developed, so did the technology for lighting.

Picture 1: Group of Neanderthals make fire in early human being

Oil lamps were first used in ancient Greece and Rome, made from terracotta, bronze, or stone. They were fueled by animal or vegetable oil and had wicks made from twisted fibers (Picture 2).

Picture 2: Oil Gas in Ancient time

Candles were also a popular lighting source in ancient times. Made from beeswax or tallow, they were used in homes, temples, and churches. In the Middle Ages, candles became a symbol of wealth and status, with the size and quality of the candle reflecting the social status of the person who owned it.

The 17th and 18th Centuries

In the 17th and 18th centuries, lighting technology advanced significantly. Gas lighting was introduced in the late 18th century, with the first public gas lighting system installed in London in 1807 (Picture 3). Gas lamps were widely used in cities throughout the 19th century, with entire streets being lit by gas lamps. They burn a fuel like propane or white gas to produce heat, and the heat causes the mantles to produce light.

Picture 3: Gas lamp in the Street

In the early 19th century, the invention of the electric battery led to the development of the first electric light. Humphry Davy, an English chemist, created the first electric arc lamp in 1809. However, it was not until the late 19th century that electric lighting became widely used.

The 19th Century

The 19th century was a time of rapid technological advancement in lighting. The first practical electric incandescent light bulb was developed by Thomas Edison in 1879; however, 23 different light bulbs were developed before Edison’s. Edison's light bulb was made with a carbon filament that glowed when an electric current passed through it (Picture 4). This technology revolutionized the way people lit their homes and businesses.

Picture 4: Thomas Edison in his lab testing the incandescent bulb (1847-1931)

Inventing the incandescent light bulb

The incandescent light bulb is a device that produces light by heating a filament inside a glass bulb until it glows (Picture 5). The invention of the incandescent light bulb is attributed to Thomas Edison, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest inventors of all time.

Picture 5: Incandescent lamps lit, standing out in the dark

Edison began working on the incandescent light bulb in 1878, and by 1879 he had developed a working prototype. His bulb used a carbon filament that could be heated to high temperatures without burning up. Edison also developed a vacuum pump that could remove air from the bulb, which helped to prevent the filament from burning up due to oxidation (Picture 6).

Edison's incandescent light bulb was a breakthrough in lighting technology, and it quickly replaced other forms of lighting such as gas lamps and candles. The incandescent light bulb remained the most widely used form of lighting until the development of more energy-efficient alternatives such as fluorescent and LED bulbs.

While Edison is credited with inventing the incandescent light bulb, many other inventors were working on similar devices around the same time. Some of these inventors included Joseph Swan, Hiram Maxim, and Nikola Tesla. However, Edison's bulb was the first to be commercially viable and widely adopted, making him the most famous and celebrated inventor of the incandescent light bulb.


Picture 6: The incandescent lamp illustration

Inventing the Fluorescent lamps

The invention of the fluorescent lamp is credited to a team of inventors led by Edmund Germer, Friedrich Meyer, and Hans Spanner. They worked for the General Electric Company in the 1920s and were trying to develop a more energy-efficient alternative to the incandescent light bulb.

The fluorescent lamp works by passing an electric current through a gas (usually mercury vapor) inside a glass tube. This produces ultraviolet light, which is then absorbed by a phosphorescent coating on the inside of the tube. The phosphorescent coating emits visible light, which is what we see as the glow of the lamp (Picture 7).

The key innovation that made the fluorescent lamp possible was the development of a reliable source of high-frequency electrical power. This was necessary to create the initial discharge of the gas inside the tube, which in turn produced ultraviolet light.

The first commercially available fluorescent lamp was introduced in 1938 by the General Electric Company. These lamps were initially expensive and had a bluish-green tint to the light they produced. However, they were much more energy-efficient than incandescent bulbs and could last up to ten times longer.

Over time, improvements in technology led to the development of more efficient and longer-lasting fluorescent lamps. Today, they are widely used in a variety of applications, from residential lighting to commercial and industrial settings.

Picture 7: The fluorescent lamp illustration

The 20th Century

The 20th century saw the development of new lighting technologies and the widespread adoption of electric lighting. In the early 1900s, neon lighting was invented, which used a gas discharge tube filled with neon gas to create a bright, colorful light. Neon lighting was popular in the 1920s and 1930s for advertising signs.

In the mid-20th century, the first LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes) were developed (Picture 8). LEDs are highly efficient, long-lasting, and can produce a wide range of colors. Today, LEDs are widely used for everything from lighting homes and businesses to powering digital displays.

Picture 8: The color LED lamps panel

Developing the LEDs during time:

  • 1962: Nick Holonyak Jr. invents the first visible LED, a red LED made of gallium arsenide phosphide.
  • 1970s: Researchers begin experimenting with using LEDs for general lighting applications.
  • Early 1990s: Shuji Nakamura invents the blue LED made of gallium nitride, which can be combined with phosphors to create white light.
  • Mid-1990s: First commercially available white LED lamps are introduced but they are still expensive.
  • Late 1990s: Researchers develop RGB LEDs, allowing for a wider range of colors.
  • Early 2000s: Introduction of phosphor-converted LEDs, which are more energy-efficient and longer-lasting than traditional lighting sources.
  • Mid-2000s: LED lamps become more versatile, with designs ranging from traditional bulb-shaped lamps to flat, panel-style lamps.
  • Late 2000s: Rise of smart LED lighting systems, allowing users to control their lights using a smartphone app, voice commands, or a smart home assistant.
  • Current: Continued development of LED technology, with a focus on increasing energy efficiency, improving color rendering, and enhancing the functionality of smart LED lighting systems.

Benefits of the LED lamps Vs. Fluorescent, incandescent or halogen lamps:

  • Energy Efficiency: LED lamps are highly energy-efficient and consume significantly less power than fluorescent and halogen lamps, which leads to lower electricity bills and reduced carbon footprint.
  • Longevity: LED lamps have a much longer lifespan than fluorescent and halogen lamps, lasting up to 50,000 hours. This means they require less frequent replacement, reducing maintenance costs and waste.
  • Durability: LED lamps are more durable than fluorescent and halogen lamps as they are made from sturdy materials and do not contain fragile components such as filaments and glass tubes. This makes them less prone to damage and breakage.
  • Quality of Light: LED lamps produce a higher quality of light than fluorescent and halogen lamps, as they emit a more natural and consistent light with better color rendering.
  • Environmental Impact: LED lamps are more environmentally friendly as they contain fewer hazardous materials and are easier to dispose of properly.
  • Versatility: LED lamps are highly versatile and can be used in a wide range of applications, from residential and commercial lighting to automotive and industrial lighting. They are available in a variety of shapes and sizes, making them suitable for any lighting need.
  • Instant Lighting: LED lamps provide instant lighting with no warm-up time, unlike fluorescent lamps which can take a few seconds to reach full brightness. This makes them ideal for spaces where quick lighting is necessary, such as bathrooms and kitchens.
  • Directional Lighting: LED lamps are highly directional and can be focused on a specific area, whereas fluorescent and halogen lamps emit light in all directions. This makes LED lamps more efficient at lighting specific areas and reducing light spillage.
  • Heat Emission: LED lamps emit very little heat compared to fluorescent and halogen lamps, making them safer to use and less likely to cause fire hazards or heat-related damage to sensitive materials.
  • Dimming Capability: LED lamps can be easily dimmed to adjust their brightness, whereas fluorescent and halogen lamps require special dimming mechanisms. This allows users to adjust the lighting to their preferences and create the desired ambiance in a room.
The 21st Century

The 21st century has seen continued innovation in lighting technology. Smart lighting systems that can be controlled with a smartphone or voice commands have become increasingly popular. These systems allow users to adjust the brightness and color of their lights, as well as schedule them to turn on and off at specific times.

LED lighting has also continued to evolve, with the development of organic LEDs (OLEDs) that can be made into flexible, lightweight sheets. OLEDs have the potential to revolutionize the way we light our homes and cities, as they can be easily shaped and molded to fit any surface.