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Artificial Illumination

Artificial Illumination

The development of artificial lighting and its impact on human productivity.

Since any indoor space must also be sufficiently illuminated during the night, lighting design cannot always depend on the natural daylight. A problem solved by electrical energy and now a fundamental part of the modern architecture.


There is a certain warmth in observing a city at night. We can see our nightlife described by the colors of many streetlights. The cold shadows of a late night, contrasted by the uplifting orange, creates a very familiar peaceful palette. The aesthetics artificial lightning brings with itself, allow for the creation of diverse and emotional environments.

In our attempts to distinguish ourselves from the world of nature, in all kinds of ways, we often forget one of the most notable breakthroughs in human evolution. Mastery over illumination. Our whole civilization was built around humanity’s relative independence from daylight.

Nowadays, it has become extremely difficult to imagine a life without the means of artificial lightning. Enjoying ourselves while camping for a few days is not even remotely comparable to a just a few hundred years ago, when people had only one option to illuminate the surroundings. Fire.

It was around 300,000 years ago when humanity began the wide use of fire to produce both light and heat. Artificial lighting made it possible for us to be more active during the night, thus ruining our daylight-based sleep patterns.

There were no street lamps of any kind and especially none on the roads in-between cities or villages. For all the rest of the folks, the evening hours were off-limits as they were filled with dangers, some as simple as just tripping over or falling down somewhere. In short, people were more than happy to stay home and sleep over the night.

This limitation of illumination also affected the productivity cycles of all people. One had to wake up the moment the sun shows up to try and be productive because it was simply not possible to work in the evening. Yes, having a candle or a fireplace would provide the needed light, but resources were scarce and only the rich were able to afford such a luxury of a continuous light source.

It is when the darkness of the night engulfs the Earth that the warmth of our street lights becomes apparent. As we are the only species known to have discovered the means for energy production, these shining lights act as a symbol of our presence on the planet.

It was somewhere in the late 17th and early 18th century that street light first became a thing. This was present in the bigger, more developed cities, where the residents were asked to ignite a lamp in front of their house at night. The combination of the many citizens complying with this rule saw some of the first street illumination systems in the world.

The first versions of street lamps were oil-based, which gave a very dim and uneven light, just enough to get home from the local pub. As their use became more and more popular, new fuel types were discovered, such as paraffin, which gave a much greater luminance and a cleaner smoke.

In the early 19th century, something much closer to our modern street lighting was introduced with the coming of gas lamps. With an expanding infrastructure of gas pipes, these lamps revolutionised the way artificial illumination can be achieved. No more did people had to tend to the flame or worry of a rogue candle setting the house on fire.

With the extension of the hours people can spend outside, individuals were now able to be more productive, be it for personal enjoyment or making a living out of it. Many occupations exists just because we are able to spend more time outside, even when it is dark. Some cities were even becoming renown for their atmosphere during the night rather than the day, which led to the term “nightlife” being used.

Near the brink of the 20th century a more efficient, safe and agile method was finally introduced. What we all use and love now, electrical lighting. Of course, as something as innovative as this, it was first used in the industrial sector before making its way to people’s homes some years later.

It took all these years of development to reach a point in civilization where it has become more and more common to work at night as even the digital screen you are reading this article on emits light. With the spread of electrical lighting throughout the 20th century and the innovativeness of the 21st century in lighting technology, for example LED lights, there are now new challenges to be faced.

The luminous efficacy of the lamps inevitably affect the operational costs of the lighting systems. Newer and more energy efficient solutions for mass use must be created in order to keep the impact on our planet to a bare minimum. Furthermore, the overuse of lighting has brought two quite serious problems.

One is “Over Illumination” or what we often observe in many stores where more than the needed light is installed. This has a negative impact on our eyes and can cause dizziness, headaches and many more unwanted side effects.

The second is “Light Pollution” and it is linked with the overuse of outdoor illumination. This has stripped more than half of the population on this planet from seeing the Milky Way in the night sky or even most of the stars that our ancestors grew up with.

Although our light technology evolved as much as we did over time, the warmth of a fireplace and the easiness of daylight on our eyes will forever remain in our perception. It is important we do not forget where we came from and keep nature as part of our life.