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The Evolution of Artificial Light
The book starts off promisingly, in the dim past. Forty thousand years ago, by the caves of Lascaux, our ancestors made lamps of animal fat puddled in hollowed-out stone. Wicks were twisted lichen or moss. In other places at other times, humans lighted their way with corralled fireflies, torches of burning pine knots, or dried salmon on a stick. When Shetland Islanders needed a lamp, Brox writes, “they’d affix a petrel carcass to a base of clay, thread a wick down its throat, and set it alight.” These early flames were not brilliant; they smoked, gave off foul odors and required constant tending. No wonder folks went to bed as soon as their work was done. Millenniums passed. Improvements — in wicks, vessels, fuels and ways to ignite them — came slowly, though somewhat less so for some: “The wealthy and powerful have always been the first to acquire new kinds of light and have always had more of it than others,” Brox writes.
In the Middle Ages, the rich (and the Roman Catholic Church) were enjoying the clear and steady flames of beeswax candles, while the rest of the world still squinted into the grimy light of whatever adipose matter lay at hand, whether rendered from manatees, alligators, whales, sheep, oxen, bison, deer or coconuts. In lean times, the poor could face a difficult choice: eat those candles or burn them.
Brox follows light from the home and workshop into the streets, tracking the expansion of public lighting and the steady diminution of darkness. Shadows provided privacy in cramped quarters, but darkness threatened public safety (or so thought some; others believed light aided robbers and footpads). In the Middle Ages, expanding cities employed lantern-bearing night watchmen, erected gates and enforced curfews (much as we do during blackouts today). By the late 1600s, some cities began to require that citizens place candles or lamps on street-facing windowsills. (Yes, Brox’s take throughout is Eurocentric.) Though unsteady and faint, such lights served to lengthen the day, offering time “maybe for work, maybe for the counterlife that the night always offered: a chance for pleasure and the risk of transgression.”
Ruminative and curious, Brox excels at discussing the cultural and psychological changes wrought by more and better light, from the self-reliance of lanterns to our eventual dependence on coal-gas and then electric utilities. Who had light and who did not? What did different types of people do with their newfound hours? How did street lighting change public behavior? (Once drinkers could move safely between taverns, instead of perching on a single tavern stool all night, Brox writes, the streets became far rowdier; prostitutes previously confined to brothels could now sell their wares al fresco.)
With increased mobility and safety, those who could afford lighting stayed up later. Sleeping in became a mark of prestige. Meanwhile, those who lived near the gasworks — never located in a city’s high-rent district — endured foul-smelling and dangerous emissions. A new form of environmental injustice was born.
As urban lighting improved, the demarcation between city dwellers and country dwellers — still tethered to the rhythm of sun and moon — also grew starker. Eventually, Brox writes, “the illuminated city and the glamour and liveliness of its night came to define almost completely what it meant to be urban and urbane.” (With the advent of brightly lighted streets, in the mid-19th century, came the minting of a new word: “nightlife.”)
Electricity did bring good things: more security, more commerce, more “progress.” An electric light bulb was self- starting, self-maintaining, cheap, efficient, clean and safe. It “would not spontaneously ignite cloth dust in factories or hay in the mow. A child could be left alone with it.”
But this new light would also generate a new kind of isolation for unelectrified rural populations, who knew exactly what they were missing, especially after rural free delivery began distributing catalogs and magazines depicting electric irons, washers and lamps. It turns out that living without an electrical hookup wasn’t so bad when electrical hookups didn’t exist. But being deprived of power while others reveled in it left many rural dwellers feeling beyond resentful.
Brox delves with vigor into Franklin Roosevelt’s Tennessee Valley Authority, whose hydroelectric plants were meant to alleviate the effects of the Depression with jobs and raise standards of living for the rural poor. Roosevelt saw electricity not only as away to modernize people’s lives, Brox writes, but also as “a moral force capable of improving their sense of citizenship and strengthening ties within the community.” Rural electrification, Jimmy Carter wrote, “made it possible for us to stretch our hearts and stretch our minds to encompass public involvement in affairs that would not have been possible” otherwise. And so we see how engineers brought us power, while the availability of power engineered a better society.
And yet: better for whom? “Brilliant” closes with an appeal for considerably less light in the developed world (while acknowledging the need for more light in developing nations). Let’s do with slightly less illumination, Brox argues, for the sake of animals mortally confused by sky glow, astronomers who can no longer see portions of the night sky, and human thoughtfulness itself. A “new night carved out of abundance might also be a time of great possibilities,” she writes, “when we might ask in our way, as Cyril of Jerusalem once did, ‘What [is] more helpful to wisdom than the night?’”
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