The enlightened world

Lighting is the reason why many electricity networks were built in the late 19th century. The lamp has changed shape several times since then.

By NEMO Science Museum

Atari Game Console (1882) by Brush Electric CompanyNEMO Science Museum

The first electric light was the arc lamp. This lamp was invented around 1800, but only became available for practical use in the second half of that century.

The lamp was often used for street lighting, but was really too bright to use in the home.

Arc lamp (1900) by HeliosNEMO Science Museum

An arc lamp contains two carbon rods across which an electric current passes, causing a bright carbon vapour that produces visible light. 

This model originates from the beginning of the 20th century.

LIFE Photo Collection

Around 1880, the American inventor Thomas Edison developed the first functioning incandescent light bulb. It contained a thin carbon wire that glowed when an electric current passed through it. 

Thomas EdisonNikola Tesla Museum

Edison (pictured) also built electricity networks. He became embroiled in a “war of the currents” with entrepreneur George Westinghouse. Edison’s lightbulbs used direct current, while Westinghouse’s were based on alternating current. 

New York (1888) by The New York Historical SocietyNEMO Science Museum

An incandescent light bulb works with both alternating and direct current, but the currents cannot be used together on the same network. Alternating current “won” the war because it offered distribution advantages. The photo displays telephone and electricity lines in New York

Carbon wire filament incandescent light bulb (1904/1905) by Philips GloeilampenfabriekenNEMO Science Museum

The incandescent light bulb evolved in the early 20th century.

The biggest change was that the filament was no longer made of carbon, but of a metal such as the heat-resistant tungsten. Philips also developed light bulbs in the Netherlands.

Fluorescent lamp (1950/2000) by PhilipsNEMO Science Museum

In the mid-20th century, fluorescent lamps such as the fluorescent tube became popular.

Mercury gas in combination with a layer of phosphorus on the inside of the tube produces light.

It is widely used for large spaces such as in shops and offices.

By Ted ThaiLIFE Photo Collection

In the late 1980s, the energy-efficient light bulb, likewise a fluorescent lamp, came on the market. 

It is approximately five times more efficient than an incandescent light bulb and lasts longer.

A disadvantage is that it takes a while for the lamp to reach its full luminosity.

Ampoule (2016) by unknownNEMO Science Museum

The last decade has seen the rise of the LED lamp. Whereas the first LED lamps produced a distinctly cold and white light, many of the modern LED lamps resemble the classic incandescent light bulb, but they consume about ten times less power. 

New York At Night (1946) by Andreas FeiningerLIFE Photo Collection

Much of the electricity produced used to go to lighting, but that proportion is falling. An organization in the US calculated that a household now uses only about four per cent of its electricity for lighting. 

Carbon wire filament incandescent light bulb (1904/1905) by Philips GloeilampenfabriekenNEMO Science Museum

The sale of incandescent light bulbs was banned in 2009 due to their high power consumption. They have since died out. 

Centennial Bulb (2001) by unknownNEMO Science Museum

There is an exception though: in Livermore, USA, an incandescent light bulb has been burning since 1901. This is a miraculous record, considering that a light bulb usually only lasts about 1000 hours.

The fact that the light bulb is hardly ever turned off has contributed to its long life. Incandescent light bulbs often blow when you turn them on because the filament cannot cope with the rapid increase in temperature. 

Credits: Story


Object of the Month – September 2021 

Each month, NEMO Science Museum spotlights one item from its collection of 19,000 special objects. These objects, which were once part of people’s everyday lives, show us how technology changes over time.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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