Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light

Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light

by Jane Brox
Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light

Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light

by Jane Brox


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Brilliant, reminiscent of Lewis Hyde’s The Gift in its reach and of Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time in its haunting evocation of human lives, offers a sweeping view of a surprisingly revealing aspect of human history—from the stone lamps of the Pleistocene to the LEDs embedded in fabrics of the future.

Brox plumbs the class implications of light—who had it, who didn’t—through the many centuries when crude lamps and tallow candles constricted waking hours. She convincingly portrays the hell-bent pursuit of whale oil as the first time the human desire for light thrust us toward an environmental tipping point. Only decades later, gas street lights opened up the evening hours to leisure, which changed the ways we live and sleep and the world’s ecosystems.

Edison’s “tiny strip of paper that a breath would blow away” produced a light that seemed to its users all but divorced from human effort or cost. And yet, as Brox’s informative and hair-raising portrait of our current grid system shows, the cost is ever with us.

Brilliant is infused with human voices, startling insights, and—only a few years before it becomes illegal to sell most incandescent light bulbs in the United States—timely questions about how our future lives will be shaped by light.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547520346
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 07/07/2011
Pages: 372
Sales rank: 999,476
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About the Author

JANE BROX is the author of BrilliantClearing Land, Five Thousand Days Like This One, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Here and Nowhere Else, which received the L. L. Winship/PEN New England Award. She lives in Maine.

Read an Excerpt


Lascaux: The First Lamp

Although fire has blazed in hearths and flared from pine torches for half a million years, the earliest known stone lamps — fashioned by Ice Age humans during the Pleistocene — are no more than forty thousand years old. Their quiet flames shone more weakly than those of our candles, but they were cleaner than torchwood and easier to guard and tend. Often the lamps were merely unworked flat slabs of limestone, or limestone with natural cavities for the nubs of tallow — animal fat — that had to be replenished every hour. Some were roughly carved and their reservoirs carefully shaped with sloping sides so that the melted fat could be poured off without drowning the lichen, moss, or juniper wicks. Since limestone is a poor conductor of heat, there’d have been no need to carve a handle: people could hold the lamp in the palm of their hands. Except that the cups are charred, they could be mistaken for small mortars or grinding stones.

Archaeologists have discovered such stone lamps overturned near open hearths and among cooking tools and spearpoints in shallow rock shelters. They’ve also unearthed them far from settlements, deep in the caves of what is currently southern France, caves that are now famous — La Mouthe, Lascaux — for there isn’t anything more beautiful than what Ice Age humans made by such light. Eighteen thousand years ago, while above them herds funneled through valleys on their way to the plains near the coast, people ventured far beyond the reach of day — working their way down stone corridors and twisting through narrows — to draw from memory on the limestone walls and ceilings. Sometimes their works extend higher than human reach: a man would have had to stand on scaffolding or upon a rock protruding from a wall to make marks with his hands and with bristles dipped in manganese and iron oxide. More often, the artist held the pigment in his mouth and blew it onto the cave wall to make a mark. He also blew through hollowed-out bones. Concentrated marks one after another produced the sturdy outline of an animal, while a more diffuse spray colored a flank or back. In places details are certain and fine. Elsewhere the marks are suggestive: four streaks make a cat’s head. At times the contours of the wall stand for the back of a horse, a small protuberance for an eye. The artists understood how to place a leg or draw the turn of a head to create a sense of visual depth in their work.

In the chambers of Lascaux, black and brilliant animals swirl, eddy, and flow toward the deepest reaches of the cave: Galloping horses and horses superimposed on horses, a great red and black horse, a horse with a turned-back foot, a horse rolling on the ground, traces of a painted equid. A black stag, swimming stags, a fallen stag, a stag with thirteen arrows. A great stag and horse with merged outlines. A headless equid drawn in red. Two bison, the head of a bison, the head and horns of a cow, a red cow painted on the ceiling. The solitary head of a bull in the Hall of the Bulls. Panel of the Musk Ox, Panel of the Ibexes, Niche of the Felines. Wounded, grazing, fleeing, young: "The iconography of this cave," said archaeologist Norbert Aujoulat, "is, above all, a fantastic ode to life." Everything was contingent on the herds: food and clothing (needles and awls were carved from bones, while tendons provided thread and binding), as well the tallow in the lamps.

There’s no evidence that Ice Age humans used more than a handful of lamps as they drew, and if carbon dioxide had built up in the chamber — as it often does in the still air of deep limestone caves — they might have had trouble keeping even their few lamps lit. It’s likely they saw only a small portion of their work at any one time, that it receded in darkness behind them and lay in shadow above them: "Achieving full and accurate color perception of the cave images along a five-meter-long panel," notes French archaeologist Sophie de Beaune, "would require 150 lamps, each of them placed 50 centimeters from the cave wall." So the artists couldn’t have perceived the reds, yellows, and blacks of their own marks as clearly as we moderns can under the incessant glare of electric bulbs or in contemporary color photographs of the friezes and panels.

To reach the farthest chamber of Lascaux, it’s likely a man had to snuff out his light, lower himself down a shaft with a rope made of twisted fibers, and then rekindle his lamp in the dark so as to draw the woolly rhinoceros, the half horse, and the raging bison there. A long spear transfixes that bison, and entrails pour from its side. Beneath its front hooves lies the one painted man in all of Lascaux: prone, spindly, wounded, disguised behind a bird mask. And below him, until its discovery in 1960, lay a spoon-shaped lamp carved of red sandstone. It differs from the others in more than the nature of the stone and its shape. (The handle was essential because sandstone conducts heat efficiently, and it would have been impossible to hold the lamp without it.) The lamp possesses a refined beauty: its maker created a perfectly symmetrical bowl, polished the sandstone smooth, and incised the handle with chevrons. Perhaps it was used for ceremonies, though that can’t entirely be known. Hold it again as it once was held, and the animals will emerge out of darkness as you pass. Nothing stays still. Shadows nestle in the cavities; a flicker of light across pale protruding rock turns a hoof or raises a head. One shape recedes as another emerges, and everything lingers in the imagination.

Light as it would be for ages to come: light, its limits, and then the dark. Over time, lamps were fashioned out of shells, then pottery shaped like shells or slippers, and there were gradual improvements in the design: some bear turned-over lips on their terra cotta cups, which prevented spills. The cloth or rope wicks lay horizontally within wick channels shaped like thick spouts — perhaps suggested by the flutes of shells — which helped the oil to climb the wick and keep the flame steady. Ancient Greek and Roman lamps had enclosed reservoirs, which protected the oil from dirt or flies and guaranteed a little safety, but the flame itself was unguarded by glass.

It is believed that the Romans might have fashioned the first beeswax candles, which gave a fragrant, clear, steady flame and burned so evenly they were eventually used to divide time into hours. The ninth-century Anglo-Saxon king Alfred the Great wished to "render to God, with a good heart, the fourth part of the service of his body and of his mind, both by day and by night." So as to tell accurate time in the dark or in the rain, he ordered that beeswax equal to seventy-two pence in weight be made into six candles, each twelve inches long. He needed to prevent drafts from affecting the burning time of the candles, for "the violence of the winds blew too much upon them . . . day and night without ceasing through the doors of the churches and the windows, and the chinks and holes in the woodwork, and the many rifts in the walls, and the thin tents." To do so, he "ordered a lantern to be well made of wood and ox-horn, for the horns of oxen, when white and planed down to a thin sheet, are as clear as glass. . . . And when this device had been so executed, six candles, one after another, burned for twenty-four hours without intermission, neither too quickly or too slowly. And when they went out others were lighted."

Rare and costly beeswax was long the province only of the Roman Catholic Church and the wealthy. Most other people depended on fat they pressed or rendered from animals, fish, or vegetation near at hand: manatees, alligators, whales, sheep, oxen, bison, deer, bears, coconuts, cottonseed, rapeseed, and olives, the chosen oil of the Mediterranean. In England tallow candles from domestic herds provided the main source of light. The highest-quality candles contained a large portion of hard, white mutton tallow, while softer beef tallow made a taper of lesser quality. Poor people couldn’t be fussy about their tallow and would use almost any household grease available for their lights, which were most often made of rushes that had been gathered from the marshes in late summer or fall. The work of making such lights was usually reserved for children and the old, who soaked the rushes and peeled away the outer skin. They dried the inner pith in the sun, then repeatedly dipped the rush in melted fat. Rushlights were frail and slim — "an object like the ghost of a walking-cane," wrote Charles Dickens, "which instantly broke its back if it were touched." A simple iron pincer held the rush at a slant, for upright it consumed itself too quickly. A well-made two-foot rushlight would burn shy of an hour.

Light, it seems, could be gained from any viable thing at hand. In the West Indies, the Caribbean, Japan, and the South Sea Islands, people saw by the light of numerous fireflies, which they captured and kept in small cages. South Sea Islanders skewered oily candlenuts on bamboo to make torches, while those on Vancouver Island placed a dried salmon in the fork of a stick and lit it. Shetland Islanders caught, killed, and stored storm petrels by the thousands. The petrel, it’s said, was named after Saint Peter, because it seems to walk on water as it feeds: a sea bird, full of buoyant, insulating oil. When the islanders needed a lamp, they’d affix a petrel carcass to a base of clay, thread a wick down its throat, and set it alight.

The first American colonists — possessing no domestic herds in the early years of settlement, but being surrounded by abundant woodlands — often used pine knots, called candlewood, for their lights. The knots smoked heavily and dripped pitch, so they were usually placed in the corner of a fireplace or on a stone slab. Wood splinters set in iron pincers provided portable lights. Even after herds were established in the colonies, poorer people continued to use candlewood, as did rural families: "It was said that a prudent New England farmer would as soon start the winter without hay in his barn as without candle-wood in his woodshed."

New Englanders sometimes made fragrant candles from the waxy outer coating of bayberries, which they rendered by boiling the berries. They also made use of deer, moose, and bear fat, although once they established herds of sheep and cattle, they used the fat of their domestic animals as well. Women spent long hours painstakingly dipping candles — "a serious undertaking . . . sevenfold worse in its way even than washing-day," claimed Harriet Beecher Stowe. "A great kettle was slung over the kitchen fire, in which cakes of tallow were speedily liquefying; a frame was placed quite across the kitchen to sustain candle-rods, with a train of board underneath to catch the drippings." The day could not be too warm, or the quality of the candles would suffer. The tallow had to be "cut very small, that it may be speedily dissolved; for otherwise it would be liable to burn or become black, if left too long over the fire." The wicks couldn’t be dipped too quickly, or the candles would be brittle. After the first three dips, "water, proportionate to that of tallow, [was] poured in for precipitating the impure particles to the bottom of the vessel." It could not be done sooner, "as the water, by penetrating the wicks, would make the candles crackle in burning, and thereby render them useless." Afterward, the candles had to be cooled slowly, or they would be likely to crack. They softened in warm weather and, being made of animal fat, spoiled on the shelf over time. They had to be stored where the mice and rats couldn’t get at them.

In later years, women used tin or pewter molds to make candles. Their work then was simpler and quicker, though still laborious, for a farm wife would have to make hundreds of candles to last for a winter of meager light. Historian Marshall Davidson notes that "even the best-read people remained sparing with candlelight. In his diary for 1743 the Reverend Edward Holyoke, then president of Harvard, noted that on May 22 and 23 his household made 78 pounds of candles. Less than six months later the diary records in its line-a-day style, ‘Candles all gone.’"

Unlike the paraffin candles of modern times, tallow candles were not easy to keep lit. Not only did they soften in warm weather, but they also burned unevenly and lost their brilliance as they burned. To maintain more than a few at any one time required constant work: each would have to be snuffed — that is, the charred wick had to be trimmed — and rekindled at least every half-hour to be kept from guttering. (Guttering occurs when the melted wax channels down the side of the candle, which makes the taper burn unevenly and causes the flame to flicker.) A draft would misshape and often douse a candle. If it wasn’t properly extinguished, it would give off excessive smoke and an acrid stench, which was all the more problematic in well-to-do households, where many candles might be extinguished at once. Jonathan Swift gave extensive advice to servants concerning the dousing of candles:

There are several Ways of putting out Candles, and you ought to be instructed in them all: You may run the Candle End against the Wainscot, which puts the Snuff out immediately: You may lay it on the Floor, and tread the Snuff out with your Foot; You may hold it upside down until it is choaked with its own Grease; or cram it into the Socket of the Candlestick: You may whirl it round in your Hand till it goes out: When you go to Bed, after you have made Water, you may dip the Candle End into the Chamber-Pot: You may spit on your Finger and Thumb, and pinch the Snuff until it goes out: The Cook may run the Candle’s Nose into the Meal Tub, or the Groom into a Vessel of Oats, or a Lock of Hay, or a Heap of Litter. . . . But the quickest and best of all Methods, is to blow it out with your Breath, which leaves the Candle clear and readier to be lighted.

As for lamps, even with tallow of the highest quality, they needed frequent cleaning to work well. Tallow, being thick, had trouble climbing up the wick — often nothing more than a twisted rag in poorer households — which had to be pulled up from time to time and trimmed. If the fire was starved of fuel, it would produce a thin, smoky flame, though given too much, it would smoke as well. And it smelled gamy: "stinking tallow," Shakespeare called it.

In every century, those who had easy access to an ample fuel supply could enjoy adequate light, as did the wealthy everywhere, who also brightened their homes and halls by making use of precious mirrors to magnify the flames and who could be profligate with their beeswax. "At the Court of Louis XIV of France no candle was ever re-lighted and the ladies-in-waiting made quite a good thing out of selling, as their perquisite, the candle ends of expensive wax," notes historian William O’Dea. "This seems to have been the custom in other royal households." But for those who had to buy candles, the cost was dear: "In the middle of the fifteenth century in Tours, a laborer had to work half a day to earn enough for a pound of tallow. And wax was priceless."

The lamp was one thing; lighting it was another, especially before the invention of the safety match in the nineteenth century. The earliest intentional fires were started with sparks made by striking flint against iron pyrites, or from the friction between hardwood and softwood, for which the fire builder might lay a hardwood stick set with drilled holes on the ground or across his knees, then insert a softwood stick into one of the holes and twirl it steadily — perhaps for less than a minute on a day with no rain — until the abrasion created enough heat to start the wood smoldering. Once he saw smoke rise, he would throw crushed dry leaves on it, cup the smoldering leaves with his hands, and blow the smolder into a blaze. Then he’d turn the fire over onto a small pile of twigs and leaves. It would be easiest to start with good dry sticks, which were often much cherished. Of the Karankawa Indians of Texas it is said: "Their fire sticks they always carried with them and kept them carefully wrapped in several layers of skins tied up with thongs and made into a neat package; they were thus kept very dry, and as soon as the occasion for their use was over they were immediately wrapped up again and laid away."

In eighteenth-century Europe, getting a flame was hardly any easier. The tinderbox found in almost all kitchens would have contained fire steel, flint, and tinder — usually charred linen. To make a fire by striking flint against steel and setting off sparks, which were aimed toward the charred cloth, fed with more tinder, and fanned to a flame, was an ordinary task that could be accomplished quickly on a dry day in broad light, though on "a cold dark frosty morning when the hands are chapped, frozen and insensible," wrote one sufferer, "you may chance to strike the flint against the knuckles for some considerable time without discovering your mistake."

Once gotten, fire was carefully guarded, and many households maintained some glowing embers in the hearth. If the fire went cold, a child would be sent to a neighbor’s with a pail or shovel to fill with live coals. James Boswell, author of The Life of Samuel Johnson, wrote of the consequences of losing one’s light:

About two o’clock in the morning I inadvertently snuffed out my candle, and as my fire was long before black and cold, I was in a great dilemma how to proceed. Downstairs did I softly and silently step into the kitchen. But, alas, there was as little fire there as upon the icy mountains of Greenland. With a tinder box is a light struck every morning to kindle the fire, which is put out at night. But this tinder box I could not see, nor knew where to find. I was now filled with gloomy ideas of the terrors of the night. . . . I went up to my room, sat quietly until I heard the watchman calling ‘past three o’clock’. I then called to him to knock at the door of the house where I lodged. He did so, and I opened to him and got my candle re-lumed without danger.

Sometimes the lack of a candle could be deadly. Historian Jane Nylander uncovered the record of an "unfortunate man staying at a tavern in New Haven in June 1796 [who] ‘was going to bed without a light . . . [and] opened the cellar door instead of a chamber door, and falling down the cellar steps fractured his Scull, of which he expired the next morning.’" But also the danger of fire from an open flame never ceased. In truth, as cities grew larger, entire districts of tightly packed wooden houses were at the mercy of an overturned lamp, a stray cinder, a child careless with a candle. One eighteenth- century writer noted, "The English dwell and sleep, as it were, surrounded with their funeral piles."

Such danger might be reason enough to send the children to bed in the dark, but more likely it was done for economy’s sake. Before the advent of mineral oils in the nineteenth century, all fuel could also be used for food. John Smeaton, in his account of building the Eddystone Lighthouse off the coast of Plymouth, England, said that he "found it a matter of complaint through the country — that the light keepers had at various times been reduced to the necessity of eating the candles."

In the worst of times, many saw only by the light of their cooking fires, or by dint of one candle or lamp at the center of a table, which they rarely lit before darkness fell. The poorest people might have no light at all. So a glimmer for a task, for an hour, for supper in winter. Farmers might repair their tools or carve new ax handles by lamplight. Women mended and stitched. It was hardly enough for precise work: "A French Book of Trades in the thirteenth century forbade gold and silversmiths to work [after dark], for ‘light at night is insufficient for them to ply their trade well and truly,’" notes historian A. Roger Ekirch. But what constituted "dark" wasn’t often clear: "From Easter to Saint-Rémi, tannery workers set the rising and the setting of the sun as the limits of the working day for summer, and for winter, the moment when there was not enough light to distinguish a denier [a small coin] of Tours from a denier of Paris."

In a time when labor was often ceaseless during the day, the constrictions of the night could be welcome. According to Cyril of Jerusalem, "A servant would have had no rest from his masters, had not the darkness necessarily brought a respite. And often after wearying ourselves in the day, how are we refreshed in the night." The church, however, deemed night not only as a time of rest but also as a time for prayer and for the soul’s reckoning: "And what [is] more helpful to wisdom than the night?" asked Cyril. "And when is our mind most attuned to Psalmody and Prayer? Is it not at night? And when have we often called our own sins to remembrance? Is it not at night?" Beyond rest and prayer, in the dimly lit interiors, in the close and crowded quarters of earlier times, people may have even found a little freedom within the confines of their homes, for the dark affords its own kind of privacy: no one and no thing can be fully seen.

Still, people devised ways to increase what little light they had. Sometimes they would focus and magnify their lights by setting a water bottle in front of a flame. In European villages, women would gather at one cottage in the evening and position themselves around a raised lamp that had been surrounded with globes of tinted blue water. (Women in cold countries used snow water.) The color, it was said, tempered the glare. Though all kinds of close work was done by such light, this was called a lacemaker’s lamp. The workers gathered "in orderly rows," Gertrude Whiting explained, "the best lacemakers on the highest stools nearest the lamp or candle-stand. Thus, we are told, some eighteen workers can be accommodated, the outer row of stools or chairs being lower to catch the falling rays of light shed from the pole-board. This graded arrangement is spoken of as first, second and third lights." Third light would have been particularly ghostly: the women facing the inky backs of their companions, gleaning light from the diffuse rays that fell from above or between those in front of them. It illuminated little more than their hands and work.

Is it any wonder that in good weather women sat at the door of their homes and sewed, mended, or made lace in broad daylight? Although in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, large windows lightened the interiors of homes and showed up the dirt in the corners as never before — spurring housewives to sweep and scrub all that much harder — rooms were still consumed by shadows. In Vermeer’s The Little Street, the inside of a home glimpsed through glass windows appears dark in day, as it does through the open door where a woman in a white cap sits, intent on the white work in her lap. She’s framed in whitewash, then in sturdy, centuries-old brickwork, which has settled and cracked and been patched. The high façade makes the Dutch street seem akin to the shallow rock shelters of the last Ice Age, where women — bent over sinew, stone, and bone — also sat in the open, patiently tending to fleeting life.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Just one of the many pleasures of Jane Brox's sweeping history of human light is its evocation of the wonder and fascination the lowly light bulb roused when it was new, before it became, by virtue of the reverse alchemy of mass production, abundant and déclassé. Brox succeeds brilliantly thanks to writing that rivals her subject in sparkle, glow, and wattage."
—Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind

“I'll gladly read anything by Jane Brox on any subject, but her poetic and original retelling of the story of manmade light provides a suitably grand occasion for her superb powers of observation and her intimate, precise, startlingly evocative prose to shine.”
—Carlo Rotella, author of Cut Time

"In gracious, elegant, unhurried prose, Jane Brox unspools the story of light. Every page contains at least one small marvel, but the greatest wonder is the realization that what she has illuminated is nothing less than a story of ourselves, and of the myriad ways our lives are 'interconnected, contingent, and intricate.' BRILLIANT, indeed."-
—Leah Hager Cohen , athor of Train Go Sorry and House Lights

"Brilliant is fascinating in its subject matter, charming in its storytelling and accessible style, and meticulously researched. This kind of book helps place science in a human context."
—Alan Lightman, author of Einstein's Dreams

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