Thursday, January 3, 2008

Lighting the Night

I'm looking for a replacement for the hanging light on my front porch. After ten years, the light is looking a little worse for wear. The design is pretty typical - traditional lines and beveled glass. It got me thinking about why even in the 21st century, we seem to still need to emulate the designs of lanterns that are hundreds of years old. We clearly derive comfort from the continuity that comes from tradition. The source of the light within the lantern has gone through a lot of changes - candles, gas, electricity - yet the shape of the lantern stays much the same.

This led me to wonder about the history of outdoor lighting. I'll quickly breeze past the open fire and burning torch stages, but planned civic lighting seems to date back thousands of years. Hazel Rossotti in her book, Fire: Servant, Scourge, and Enigma, describes how the ancient Egyptians required that each house or store that bordered a street have a brightly lit front room to cast light out onto the avenue. Similar findings have been reported in Pompeii. By the 4th Century AD, street lights consisting of oil lamps hanging from ropes lit the streets of Antioch and Caesarea. Paris had the first compulsory street light law, passed in 1367. Lights were required to be hung at specified distances to deter crime. The French scored another first with a new design of oil lamp that lit the entire road from Paris to Versailles (where else?) in 1777.

Gas lighting emerged as the preferred source of outdoor lighting in the 1820's and persisted in some places until after World War I despite the rise of the incandescent light. But electric lighting inevitably carried the day (or night). Now we have to deal with the problems of light pollution which make the night sky all but invisible in high population density areas. A lot of us live in a very well-lit world, indeed.

But I see beauty returning even to modern street lighting with better designed fixtures. They are reducing light pollution and many of them once again mimic the external designs of a prior century.

Which brings me to yet another recent example of modern lighting mimicking an older technology. My wife was in a Brookstone store over the holidays and found a candle, well, sort of a candle. It looks like a candle, wax and all but in place of a wick it has two LED lights that flicker when powered on. It also has an aroma chamber that emits a candle scent from a small pump. Hmm. I am sure there are places where this device would indeed be safer than a real candle but is this really progress? I can see the ad: Scented Candle (Batteries Not Included). We go forward while reaching back. It seems to give the comfort we need to progress.

[Image of candles from Brookstone. US at night from NASA]

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