Today, he stops by the NOOK Blog to share three fascinating ways electric light changed life forever.
Tracing the spread of electric light in the decades after it left Edison’s laboratory, I found no aspect of American life that was not changed by a steady supply of strong, clean light. Surgeons and photographers, hunters and theater artists—all played a part in “inventing” the world of artificial light we now take for granted. In three ways, electric light changed life forever.
No heat, no smell: For all of human history, the hunger for light led people to accept some nasty side effects. Candles, oil lamps, and gaslight flickered, sucked oxygen from the air, overheated rooms and filled them with noxious gases. Gas lamps gave the best light with the worst consequences, spewing acids that corroded paint and fabric, and left many reeling with headaches. Edison’s bulb offered “pure light” at the turn of a switch, in lamps that did not need to be cleaned each day. Of course, as we now know, electric light keeps rooms clean but throws plenty of carbon soot into the atmosphere, another unintended consequence of our love for light.
The Endless Workday: When New England’s textile mill owners first tried to extend the workday by introducing oil lamps, workers demanded “no lighting up.” At a time when unions pressed for a shorter workday, capitalists recognized that strong light would allow them to keep their factories running longer. The late shift was born. This took a terrible toll on children toiling in mines and mills, but many workers found the strong light made work safer, more cheerful, and less toxic. Electric light made night travel safer as well, an essential foundation of modern America’s 24/7 economy.
A Machine to Create Fun: Entertainment moguls like P.T. Barnum immediately recognized the electric light as a tool for creating a vibrant and irresistible urban nightlife. At first the light WAS the entertainment: huge crowds gathered to see fountains glowing under a rainbow of spotlights, and pulsing towers of multi-colored bulbs. Soon cities across America followed Coney Island’s lead in creating amusement parks saturated in electric light, little islands of electric euphoria. At a time when shopping was fast becoming one of Americans’ favorite pastimes, grand department stores used some of the same techniques to blur the line between buying and playing. Urban Americans have not gotten a good night’s sleep ever since.
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