The History of Artificial Light and How It Has Changed Who We Are

Brilliant-cvr George Russell in PopMatters:

For most of us artificial light is known only by its absence. At night walk down any street in any town in the industrialized world and your shadow will blink off and on as it follows you, intermittently illuminated by ubiquitous street lamps.The generation of Americans that can remember a time without artificial light, those living in rural areas during the first half of the 20th century, before power lines reached them, are quickly dying off. My grandparents were of that generation – a rancher and a farmer that were each born by the light of a kerosene lamp.

Today, artificial light is a constant companion. Darkness implies a situation to be remedied, if only by the dim light of a television or computer screen. However, our relationship with it has also blinded us to its effects. For most of us, the charges on a monthly electric bill serve as the only reminder that there is any cost at all to flipping a light switch. Brilliant, The Evolution of Artificial Light, shows how artificial light and its twin invention, electricity, have in one way or another shaped everything that we have become.

The book follows the path of this catalyzing technology as it winds it way from the last Ice Age into present day. As Brox connects the dots from early humans using stone lamps for painting the walls at Lascaux, to the the whaling trade as it arose to supply the world with lamp oil, to Edison’s Menlo Park and the dawn of modernity, to the massive power grids of today, a story of evocation begins to emerge. Seeing the broad strokes of history laid out in front of you, it’s difficult not to see a form taking shape in the flickering candlelight.

What that form is has yet to reveal itself, but its effects have probably been best described by Marshall McLuhan in 1964 when he wrote in Understanding Media, “The electric light escapes attention as a communication medium just because it has no ‘content’. And this makes it an invaluable instance of how people fail to study media at all. […] The message of the electric light is like the message of electric power in industry, totally radical, pervasive and decentralized. For electric light and power are separate from their uses, yet they eliminate time and space factors in human association exactly as do radio, telegraph, telephone and TV, creating involvement in depth.”

By focusing almost entirely on the evolution of light and electricity, in a few hundred pages Brox achieves what could be considered a historical proof of McLuhan’s ideas. She shows in Brilliant that technology, as extensions of our own bodies and minds, are what shape humanity; not the messages contained in the technology, nor the petty power struggles of day to day politics and ideologies. We have made our tools, and in turn our tools have made us.