let there be artificial light


One dark and electrically stormy night, the lights blinked out in our rented Maine cabin. Lacking candles or a flashlight, my mother knew just what to do: she poured the hamburger grease from a frying pan into a teacup, then tore a few dangling strands of cotton from the open knee of my bell-bottom jeans. She set the wick in the fat and struck a match. A teenager at the time, I’d never been quite so impressed with parental competence. The lights eventually came back on, and I forgot about the burger lamp until reading Jane Brox’s “Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light,” which takes us from fat to fluorescence and on into the future (beyond the bulb, that is). The book starts off promisingly, in the dim past. Forty thousand years ago, by the caves of Lascaux, our ancestors made lamps of animal fat puddled in hollowed-out stone. Wicks were twisted lichen or moss. In ­other places at other times, humans lighted their way with corralled fireflies, torches of burning pine knots, or dried salmon on a stick. When Shetland Islanders needed a lamp, Brox writes, “they’d affix a petrel carcass to a base of clay, thread a wick down its throat, and set it alight.” These early flames were not brilliant; they smoked, gave off foul odors and required constant tending. No wonder folks went to bed as soon as their work was done. Millenniums passed. Improvements — in wicks, vessels, fuels and ways to ignite them — came slowly, though somewhat less so for some: “The wealthy and powerful have always been the first to acquire new kinds of light and have always had more of it than others,” Brox writes.

more from Elizabeth Royte at the NYT here.