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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Let There Be Light


One of the most profound differences between our own lives and those of earlier people is that we spend many hours awake after the sun sets.

For nearly all of the 12,000 years that humans have lived in Wisconsin, sunset marked the end of each day. To work after dark required artificial light. Available fuels, usually wood or animal fats, were inconvenient to get, difficult to make into candles, expensive to consume, and smoky when burned. For thousands of years, most people simply went to sleep when the sun went down and woke up when it rose again.

Whales, Petroleum and Gas

Then, in the early 19th century, the Industrial Revolution transformed this ancient rhythm as four new fuels were discovered in quick succession.

Oil from sperm whales was first mixed with candle wax in New England at the end of the 18th century. Soon a purified version was being burned in glass lamps. Unfortunately, it was hard to get: George Burchard, of Sheboygan Co., kept this diary of his 1837-39 voyage on a whaling ship (before he came to Wisconsin). Although it gave us Moby Dick, the whale oil industry's high costs led entrepreneurs to look for other oils to burn.

In the 1850s, petroleum extracted from the mountains of Pennsylvania was processed into kerosene. This clear liquid was comparatively cheap, easy to use, and threw off so much illumination that it was even used in lighthouses. Kerosene lamps remained a standard feature of many Wisconsin rural homes well into the 20th century.

Also in the 1850s, scientists found ways to extract natural gas from the ground and to manufacture it from coal. Gas could be stored in containers or, eventually, transported in pipes to cities, where it fueled lamps such as this one in the Wisconsin Capitol. It burned bright but hot, and in 1904 the Capitol was destroyed in a fire caused by untended gas lighting.

Electric Light

Finally, in the 1880s, Thomas Edison invented a way to create light by sending electricity through a tiny wick inside a special glass bulb. Although Edison invented the device at his lab in New Jersey, the first home to be lighted by electricity was in Appleton, Wisconsin, and the first electricity offered to consumers was put on sale there. That story is told here, in the Wisconsin Magazine of History, vol. 6 no. 2 (December 1922): 189-194. You can still visit Hearthstone, the Appleton house where electric lighting became a reality.

Soon electricity was powering everything from table lamps to streetcars. But that's a different story. If you'd like to know more about early lighting, the Wilson Museum in Castine, Maine, has a handy short summary of how earlier generations tried to ward off darkness, before the age of electricity.


:: Posted in Curiosities on January 24, 2013
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