Arc lamps introduction

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.


Detail from an arc lamp advertisement SPT pamphlet 14/28

When two pieces of carbon are connected to a high voltage electricity supply, an arc of brilliant light is "struck" between them when they are a short distance apart. The first man to observe this dazzling effect was Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829) in about 1802, although he did not use it as a source of illumination. During the next 70 years several engineers used the arc to make practical electric lamps.

In Britain the most successful was William Staite, an important figure in the history of the arc lamp who received little credit for his work during his life. Several lamps appeared between the 1850s and 1870s. However, no arc lamp produced during this period could be an economic success, as the batteries then available were too costly a source of electricity.

Arc Lamps in Commercial Use

By the 1870s cheaper batteries and practical generators were becoming available, and engineers turned once more to electric lighting. The first arc lamp to be used in large numbers was the 'Jablochkoff Candle', developed in 1876 by a Russian telegraph engineer.

The light from arc lamps is too harsh for indoor home use, so the lamps were used for lighting public buildings, exhibition halls, railway yards and the like, and on 14 October 1878 a football match was played under arc lamps in Sheffield. Engineers continued to develop more efficient lamp mechanisms - for example Colonel R.E.B. Crompton (1845-1940).

Throughout the 1880s and 1890s arc lamp installations became common. Several makes of lamp were available, and further improvements were made, in particular the 'enclosed' and 'flame' lamps. By about 1910 over 20,000 arcs had been installed in British cities.

Ward Lamp advert for low tension Arc Lamps 1891 SPT pamphlet 14/37

After this peak there was little further growth, as more efficient types of filament lamp were developed. There were few new arc lamp installations, although some remained in service on London streets until the 1950s. However arc lamps launched the careers of many notable electrical engineers, and they proved to the public that electric light was a practical reality. 

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