'Brilliant': An illuminating look at artificial light
BRILLIANT: The Evolution of Artificial Light, by Jane Brox. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 360 pp $25.
Robert Louis Stevenson likened gaslight, which was supplied to London via several hundred miles of underground mains by the 1820s, to the work of Prometheus. A few decades later, around the time Russia's Paul Jablochkoff was making major improvements to the arc lamp - the first electric light - Ralph Waldo Emerson extolled electric lights for banishing the shadows created by "the flame of oil, which contented you before." Artificial light, it seemed, was progress made visible.
But, Jane Brox asks, at what cost? Though she celebrates human ingenuity and technical advances in "Brilliant," her history of artificial light, Brox also presents damning evidence that in our quest for ever more and brighter light, we've despoiled the natural world, abandoned our self-sufficiency and trained ourselves to sleep and dream less while working more.
What artificial light has signified to us, according to Brox's analysis, is the Enlightenment's promise of liberty and equality. But in reality, the wealthy and powerful have always acquired new kinds of light first and enjoyed a disproportionate share of their splendor. The advent of new lighting in the 19th century, Brox notes, "stratified society and intensified the separateness of countryside and city, household and industry." As late as 1906, when electricity was not yet considered essential for everyone, electric lighting was available only to businesses, manufacturers and wealthy homeowners. Until the New Deal, everyone else was consigned to darkness.
Perhaps, Brox argues, that wasn't such a bad thing. Working hours have grown longer. Gas lighting was first embraced by factories; a century later, Edison's lightbulb helped establish the three-shift day and the final erasure of natural time in the workplace.
If illumination-disadvantaged people were out of sight and out of mind, so, too, were the negative effects of artificial lighting on the natural world. In the early 19th century, the demand for whale oil led to the near-extinction of sperm whales. Gaslight, a byproduct of the distillation of bituminous coal into coke, required dangerous mining. Kerosene produced from petroleum encouraged oil drilling, the costs of which we're still trying to calculate.
Exploitation of fossil fuels won't be possible forever, yet visions of a "smart grid" and organic light-emitting diodes won't fix our fundamental energy problems. Why? Because the more modern we've become, the more we've taken our lighting and its power sources on faith. Before gaslight and then electrical lighting, Brox writes, "light - however meager - had always been one's own and self-contained within each dwelling." In the wake of the gasworks and the generating plant, though, light became something "interconnected, contingent, and intricate. . . . It marked the beginning of the way we are now, with our nets of voices, signs and pulses, with power subject to flickers and loss we can't do anything about." The 21st century has the potential to become a new Dark Age - except we're all less self-reliant now.