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The Story of Lighting Through Time

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How did humans get access to light 24 hours a day? With the flick of a switch, it’s there! This brief overview of the evolution of lighting will show you that it wasn’t always this easy. Step back, and enlighten yourself about the more sustainable use of light.

The Sun: More than 4 billion years ago, the Earth was first taking shape. This luminous body began to warm and illuminate our dear Earth, allowing all forms of life to flourish.

Fire and torches: The discovery of fire allowed the first people to create heat, cook their food, and light up the night. They developed the torch, a simple assembly of straw and fat that gave them a continuous flame. The torch wasn’t improved until Ancient Romans upgraded to fabrics saturated with liquid flammable fuels. The flame lasts longer but the combustion creates a lot of smoke, so these were usually used outside.

Oil lamp: These lamps first arrived shortly after the discovery of fire and it is believed they were used by prehistoric humans. The oil came from animal fat, such as whales. Eventually, vegetable oil was used. It was finer, more liquid but also rare. We had to wait until the 18th century for a brighter, more stable flame.

Candles: Candles made from various materials have appeared throughout history and are still found today due to their low cost and cosy glow. The candle was first made of a solid wick (for example, a bullrush), dipped in a fuel such as animal fat that was then hardened (like wax). Over time the wick changed to hemp or cotton, and stearic acid was eventually added to paraffin wax, which was extracted from petroleum starting in the 1850s. 

Gaslamp: In the early 19th century, gas lighting replaced candles and oil lamps in many homes, businesses, and streets. As a source of light, gas produces brighter, more efficient, and more affordable lighting. These lights were also easier and safer to use than candles, but produced a lot of heat, and created pollution.

Kerosene lamp: Kerosene was invented in the 1850s by Canadian Abraham Gesner. Kerosene is a liquid fuel refined from coal, bitumen, and oil shale. It was this invention that largely contributed to helping save the whale population by replacing the whale oil that was commonly used. The use of kerosene began the petroleum era.

Oil lamps and candles emit a weak light, cause smoke, give off odours, and require constant attention. Similarly, gas and kerosene lamps are not efficient and burn fossil fuels.

Incandescent light bulb: The incandescent modern bulb is the result of 150 years of hard work. They appeared at the turn of the 19th century, slowly replacing gas lamps due to their reliability and ease of use. A lot of energy is lost through heat due to the electric current that circulates in a filament that emits light when heated to extreme temperatures (2,000°C). Less than 5% of the energy in incandescent light bulbs is actually turned into light while the rest is lost to heat. Over the years, different materials were used to develop a more efficient, durable filament.

Compact Fluorescent Lamp (CFL) light bulb: The US experienced an oil crisis in the 1970s which generated interest in developing sustainable technologies like renewable energy and energy efficient light bulbs. That’s when we first saw compact fluorescent bulbs which consume 75% less electricity than incandescent light bulbs and reduce electricity demand. While these lights are more energy efficient, CFLs contain mercury which is a known toxin. This means that CFL bulbs must be safely disposed of at a proper facility to safeguard human health and the health of our planet.

LED Light Bulb: LED light bulbs are the most energy efficient lighting technology. They are six to seven times more efficient than incandescent light bulbs and reduce energy consumption by 80%. These can also last 25 times longer than traditional bulbs. LEDs are the best choice in terms of energy conservation. LED options are now also available for decorative and speciality lighting such as holiday lights. If you are interested in free LED light bulbs, check out the Efficient Product Installation Service from Efficiency Nova Scotia. It’s free! 

We can use LED light bulbs to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, but using LEDs is not enough. Here in Nova Scotia, despite the growing popularity of renewable energy, approximately 60% of our electricity is produced by coal, a non-renewable fossil fuel that is highly damaging to health and the environment. It is therefore imperative to change our consumption habits now to waste less energy. Let’s not take energy for granted, and start with simple actions like turning off unnecessary lights. Everyone wins, even your wallet.

For a healthy planet, let’s conserve energy and think energy efficiency first! For help to be more energy efficient in your home, contact Efficiency Nova Scotia.

~Marlène Le Bel
Engagement Officer



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