The 1800s saw sweeping technological changes. One of these was the way we lit our homes, public buildings and other areas. The transition from oil lamps to electric lamps with incandescent bulbs began in this century. More rural areas retained antiquated methods of light production, while urban areas transitioned to gas and electric light because of the increase in available infrastructure. So it was that lamps became brighter and clearer as the end of this century approached.
Whale Oil Lamps
During the first half of the 1800s whale oil lamps were popular on ships, in mines and at other blue-collar working sites. Whale oil from species such as the sperm whale burned with less odor and smoke than other oils and these lamps were brighter and more durable than candles. Whale oil lamps were metal and included a reservoir on the bottom. The wick was encased in a glass cylinder or metal cage topped with a metal cap and a ring for carrying or hanging the lamp.
Kerosene lamps were invented in 1857 by Michael Dietz. Kerosene, or “coal oil” fuel burned cleaner than whale oil, was cheaper to produce and did not spoil as whale oil did. Kerosene lamps could be made in the same form as whale oil lamps. More decorative kerosene lamps, or “hurricane lamps” included a decorative colored glass reservoir and an open-topped glass flame cover.
Natural or methane gas lamps became popular in the early 1800s as coal refining technologies improved. By 1860 these lamps were connected through underground pipelines to provide outdoor lighting to city streets and parks. They also were used in homes, but were not portable. Rather, these lamps were mounted in wall sconces to retain a connection to the gas source. The brightness of these lamps was increased late in the 1800s by the use of oxides.
Electric lamps with incandescent bulbs were used for public purposes as early as 1840, when a theater in England was the lit by electric light. The cost of these lamps was impractical and the light from early lightbulb was dim, but electric bulbs continued to improve throughout the 1800s. In 1880 Thomas Edison installed bright, practical electric lamps on the steamship Columbia. These lamps were not portable and had to be connected to a power source.
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