Let there be light.

Author:Blitzer, Dan
Position:Science & Technology

EVERYTHING WE SEE, most of what we do, and much of what we feel is touched by light. For more than a century, electric lighting has expanded our lives at home, work, and leisure. Indeed, try to imagine our modern times without readily available illumination that is safe, convenient, and remarkably affordable. Let's take a brief journey, looking back at some of the key developments in lighting and venturing some thoughts on what might lie ahead.

Some 20 years after Thomas Edison demonstrated a practical incandescent light bulb in 1879, most of the U.S. still was illuminated by gas. It took improvements, such as the tungsten filament in the bulb (around 1910) and the spread of electrification before electric lighting surpassed gas. Homes and workplaces then grew brighter. As the efficiency of incandescent light bulbs increased, people could enjoy more light without as much heat, an important consideration in the years before air conditioning became widespread.

Lighting equipment changed as well, with optics to control and direct the additional light and new designs for fixtures and portable lamps. Chain suspension made the installation of chandeliers much easier and flexible than the fixed conduit required for gas fixtures. Moreover, electric lighting could be placed directly on the ceiling or wall and shaded with fabric, not just glass.

Before the 1920s, English fashion--exemplified by a tassled shade--predominated. A decade later, a more technical approach could be seen in torchieres and engineered glass refractors concealed within pendants. The 1930s saw the sum of the first efforts at modern design with clean lines, influenced by the ideas of Art Deco and Art Moderne that originated in Europe. For an interesting contrast, consider the 1939 New York World's Fair, showcase of modern technology, and the then-newly opened Colonial Williamsburg, which repopularized traditional 18th-century English and American designs.

The U.S. economy blossomed following the end of World War II. Consumer demand, pent up from the war years and the preceding Depression, sought out new housing and furnishings. Suburban subdivisions and shopping centers sprang up, fed by new roadways and an automobile-driven lifestyle.

Modern lighting steadily found its place alongside traditional forms. Large, shallow ceiling fixtures illuminated the lower ceilings of the modern home of the 1950s. New materials, such as plastics, made lighting equipment less costly. Flexibility from adjustable cords and brackets made it more practical. European ideas, principally from Italy and Scandinavia, inspired the fresh styles that exemplify the modern aesthetic. Recessed lighting began to appear in expensive homes.

Fluorescent light sources, which debuted at the World's Fair, captured the interest of progressive-minded architects. In the 1950s, new, high-efficiency light sources began to make their way into some of the most modern homes, hidden behind valances or tucked away in coves. In the 1960s, shallow fluorescent fixtures, some inspired by translucent Japanese shoji screens, were common. The initial infatuation with fluorescent lighting as a residential style passed rather quickly, however. By the 1970s, fluorescent lighting found service mostly as task lighting in kitchens and utility rooms or as simulated skylights built into budget kitchens.

The functional quality of modern design moved from conventional table lamps and chandeliers into new forms, many of which still are important today. A good example is the "tree lamp" from the 1950s, a pole with several adjustable spotlights attached to it. From this idea, Lytespan was developed. At first a pole lamp with interchangeable lighting elements, Lytespan evolved into track lighting mounted on the ceiling to provide accent illumination....

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