Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light by Jane Brox

Having enjoyed Jane Brox's memoirs about living in Maine several years ago, I was intrigued this summer when I read reviews recommending her new microhistory Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light. Expecting to enjoy the new book, I ordered it for the library and placed my hold. Now I am happy to report that it is as good as I had hoped.

If you are like me, you enjoy learning about how things used to be in historical times. I read for the details as well as the overall descriptions of daily life. Brox satisfies on both counts. She takes her story all the way back to the cave painters in Lascaux, France, describing how the ancient artists used small limestone lamps filled with animal fat to illuminate small portions of the cave walls while they painted horses, deer, bison, and other animals that they hunted forty thousand years ago. These cave painters were never able to illuminate entire walls to see the total effect of what they had done as we can today. It would have taken thousands of the tiny lamps to create as much light as we can with a single light today.

I never really thought about how much trouble artificial lights were in the years before electricity. Whale oil lamps required frequent wick-trimming and were smoky and smelly. Making candles was a lengthy process, and candles had to be relit if the wax drowned the wick. Fire was a constant danger. Light was weak. The price of both candles and whale oil were beyond many people. Night was darker then than we can easily imagine now.

In Brilliant, Brox shows great sympathy for the people of history, especially laborers. She describes how difficult coal mining was before battery-powered lighting. Because there was always a danger of setting off explosive gases in mines, only the slightest protected flames were used. Miners were mostly working in the dark. Fowl air, coal dust, heat or cold, dark, constant danger - coal mining was terrible work that paid very little.

I did not realize before reading Brilliant that coal gas was used in gas lamps of the nineteenth century - not modern natural gas. Fittings were often poor and the fowl smell permeated some neighborhoods near gasworks. The gas companies, of course, argued that the smell of gas had been proven to be healthy for people. There were also devastating fires, sometimes destroying entire neighborhoods.

Brox details the history of electric lighting from the first batteries made by the ancient Greeks to the promises made by Jeffrey Skilling of Enron that deregulation of electricity would bring consumers less expensive power. In doing so, she highlights the struggle between Edison and Tesla, the corporate delays in getting electricity to rural areas, and the replacing of incandescent bulbs with higher efficiency alternatives. She ends with discussions of light pollution masking the night sky and the health risks of never getting the dark needed for sleep.

Brilliant is a great addition to a growing library of microhistories about technology and its impact on people.

Brox, Jane. Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light. Houghton Mifflin, 2010. ISBN 9780547055275.

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