IET Archives: The history of electric lighting

Colour poster for Mazda lamps depicting the 'Mazda goddess' the sun's only rival, from the SPT pamphlet collection  Being able to see once it gets dark is something we take for granted now but the world wasn't always so bright once the sun went down. Lighting changed how we lived and worked at home and how we entertained, travelled, worked and took up new pastimes outside of the home.

Arc lamps

Following on from oil, candle and gas lamps the need for brighter, stronger and cleaner lighting became apparent. Find out what happened when two pieces of carbon were connected to an electricity supply. The effect was 'dazzling'! Too harsh for indoor use the lamps were better suited for lighting public buildings, exhibition halls, railway yards and streets and on 14 October 1878 a football match was played under arc lamps.

Domestic lighting

Something more subtle was required for the home and this came with the development of incandescent filament lamps. In an incandescent filament lamp the heated wire was first made of carbon and heated until white hot ('incandescent') by passing an electric current through it. The filament lamp was not invented by one person, improvements and experiments were carried out by many.

An illumination across the nation!

The initial spread of electricity in Britain was slow and as it was so much more expensive than gas the ordinary person could not afford it. It was only when the Electricity (Supply) Act of 1926 was passed that real progress was made in distribution.

Women championed electric light as they literally saw the benefits it could produce in their home. Their involvement culminated in the Electrical Association for Women (E.A.W) which helped to promote and educate other women (and men!) on the benefits of electricity. Not only did the unpleasant smell associated with gas, oil and candle lighting disappear, but a new flexibility in household routines was established.

By the 1930s, electric lighting was becoming not only more affordable but more fashionable within the home. Books were published to reflect this trend and to advise the discerning homeowner on how to get the best out of their lighting.

To find out more about the subject of lighting take a look at our online resources.

Original material

For original material in our collections please refer to the research guide and search our catalogue.

Online resources and related links