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The history of light: from animal lamps to LEDs

When the first humans walked the planet millions of years ago, they relied on the Sun as their sole source of energy. The Sun gave them light, warmth and, later, food for crops. When the Sun set each night, the world went dark.

Since then, mankind has discovered other ways to light the world – from the fires and torches of our cave-dwelling descendants to the modern LEDs brightening everything from highways to homes.

Around 70,000 BCE, early humans created the first lamps by filling hollow rocks, shells and other natural objects with moss, soaking the moss in animal fat and igniting it. These crude lights are known as “animal lamps.”

Many thousands of years after the invention of animal lamps, ancient Babylonians rekindled man’s quest for reliable sources of artificial light. But progress proved to be short-lived, and the world saw little lighting innovation until close to 1800. Around that time, scientists discovered electroluminescence; before the end of the 19th century, a guy named Edison patented a new kind of lamp.

The rest, of course, is lighting history.

Lighting landmarks

Humans have always needed light, whether natural or artificial, to live. That’s why advancements in lighting so closely mirror the progress of the human race. Following are major milestones in the history of light.

  • 70,000 BCE – Ancient people fill hollow rocks, shells and other natural objects with moss, soak it in animal fat and ignite it.
  • 4,500 BCE – The first oil lamps appear.
  • 3,000 BCE – Man invents candles.
  • 900 BCE – A Persian scholar invents the kerosene lamp.
  • 1807 – Scientists discover electroluminescence.
  • 1879 – Thomas Edison patents the carbon-thread incandescent lamp.
  • 1962 – American Nick Holonyak, Jr. develops the first practical visible spectrum light-emitting diode (LED).
  • 1968 – Mass-produced LEDs appear in TVs, calculators, radios and watches.
  • 1989 – Ray Deese creates the first LED traffic light.
  • 1993 – High-brightness blue LED makes LEDs a viable source of illumination.
  • 2007 – The U.S. pledges to phase out incandescent lamps by 2014.
  • 2009 – Halo launches the first Energy Star® qualified downlight.
  • 2014 – The Nobel Prize in physics is awarded for the invention of the blue LED.

We’ve come a long way since our forebears stuffed hollow rocks and shells with animal fat-soaked moss and lit it on fire. In addition to developing energy-saving, high-performing LEDs, we’ve also learned how to control light, paving the way for powerful tools like daylight sensors, occupancy sensors and camera-based technology. We’ve had our share of dark ages, but we’re moving at light-speed now.

The future is bright.


Source: “The History of Light, in 6 Minutes and 47 Seconds” (NPR)