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Arc lamps up to 1870s

An online exhibition looking at the history, development and the engineers involved in the creation and manufacture of arc lamps. Find out how an arc lamp works and how electric lighting became a practical reality. 

Drawing showing the internal workings of an Arc Lamp. Ref. Image 1/2/0001.05

Sir Humphry Davy's experiment to demonstrate the electric arc was easily reproduced by other scientists, but it was not immediately embraced as a source of electric light. As yet no practical means existed of generating a current sufficient to sustain a light over a long period of time. With the development of chemical batteries in the 1830s and 1840s, arc lighting entered a period of practical experiment. 

Several engineers designed and patented lamps, many of which used clockwork to control the mechanism. These included the lamps of the Frenchman Leon Foucault, famous for his pendulum experiments. Foucault began work with arc lamps in the early 1840s, devising a means of maintaining the arc by hand regulation of the mechanism. He patented his clockwork mechanism in 1849. William Staite took out patents for clockwork mechanisms in Britain.

However, chemical batteries were a very expensive source of electricity, and most of the engineers experimenting with arc lamps during this period concluded that as yet, arc lighting did not have a wide field of application. With a few exceptions, there was a lull between 1859 and the development of cheaper batteries and practical generators in the 1870s. Some lamps survived in limited use however. 

These included the lamps of Duboscq (1858) and Serrin (1857). Serrin's lamp (pictured) in particular was a success, and when Colonel. R.E.B. Crompton started out in the electric lighting industry, his first lamps were based on Serrin's design. Such lamps were important in keeping electric lighting in the public eye, but it was not until the large scale installations of the Jablochkoff Candle in the late 1870s that arc lighting came into true practical use.

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