The evolution of lighting

There was light at the start and over time we have learned how to harness it and use it for many different applications in our everyday life. Light is a critical component of life as we know it; we need light and heat to survive.

The emergence of effective, energy-efficient lighting at household and in our businesses plays a prominent role in our modern lifestyle. Along with the effect of water flow on overall health, as well as the influence of the internet on our effective interactions, it’s difficult to envision a more effective technology than lighting. As you would imagine, lighting has made great strides to get to where it is now.

A lighting timeline

In around 400,000 B.C. Homo erectus discovered the flame, quite likely due to an accident when a bolt of lightning struck a tree or a field. They later explored how to recreate this flame which allowed them to use wooden torches as a source of portable heat and illumination.

Handheld torches evolved over the subsequent years but the fundamental principles of their construction remained the same: a fuel source was required, either oil, wax or some other combustible material, which would be surrounded by a non-flammable substance, such as a shell or rock which had been hollowed out.


Candles followed from around 500 BC with many different regions of the world producing some form of candle at similar times. These were made from tallow, whale fat or another form of animal fat, beeswax and even melted cinnamon out of India. The wicks were made from paper, rice paper, cotton or hemp, with each different type of material producing a different rate of burning. Lamps which used a candle flame also became a popular source of light and were later fuelled with methane, ethylene or kerosene to produce longer lasting flames.

In 1792 the Scottish Inventor William Murdock used coal-fired gas to light his home. He experimented widely with this technology and eventually it was rolled out in homes, businesses and streets. London had the first roadway illuminated by gas lamps in 1807. Gas lamps were mounted on the pillars, ignited and extinguished by hand each night after work and morning.

Many countries around the world adopted gas lanterns until electricity was introduced in the 1820’s.


At the start of the nineteenth century, Sir Humphry Davy began experimenting with electrical lighting, using a battery and sheet of platinum. These were the first incarnations of the incandescent light bulb.

The light bulb

The first electric incandescent light bulb was patented by Thomas Edison in 1879 and this fundamentally changed the way that we used light.

In the early 1880s, the use of Direct Current electricity (DC) expanded widely following Thomas Edison’s invention, and was later accompanied by Alternating Current (AC) at the end of the 1880s, creating the two common electrical currents that we know today.


Fluorescent tube lighting was introduced in 1901. As fluorescent lights were launched, argon or krypton gas was used within a capillary tube, and electricity enabled it to shine.

In 1959, General Electric patented a halogen lamp which used iodine as the halogen gas. This innovation made this form of lamp commercially viable when compared with the previous iterations where halogen was used.

In 1962, Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs) were created which simply required a semiconductor to work. This has fuelled environmentally friendly, energy-efficient lighting solutions ever since. LED bulbs typically use five times less energy than a halogen globe, helping to reduce their environmental impact while also saving you money.

Lighting today

Today we use a combination of different forms of lighting types, depending on the context, including the seemingly primitive candle. The invention of LEDs has enabled us to adopt a relatively environmentally-friendly approach to electrical lighting, which are now used readily in our homes, businesses, street-scapes and through the use of creative lighting design in Internationally recognised art installations, such as Vivid Sydney and the Field of Light at Uluru. Electricity has enabled much of this innovation and it is hard to fathom our world without it.

Field of light

Reflecting on the history of lighting allows us to see how far we have come through the use of innovation and design-thinking, while also seeing that the importance of light has remained paramount to our survival and everyday lifestyles.

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