Illumination is risky

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By John Bartlit

Light in living rooms is an ancient and basic need.
Yet, filling this need reflects the long and shifting trials of society, business and the environment.
In times past, cave dwellers filled their rooms with wood smoke. Today’s fluorescent light bulbs utilize mercury.
The story line from then to now is a mini-history of the human race.
The oil lamp, teaching of smoke and smells, was a new thing in 4500 BC. By 3000 BC, the candle was the latest and best.
Candles use consumable wicks to control the rate that fuel is burned and thus control how much light is produced and for how long. Candles even tell time.
As seen in many fields down through history, inventions in lighting came at a quickening pace. Is this effect driven by world population?
A larger population brings with it more inventors and more demands for products. The world population in 4500 BC is estimated at six million, roughly like today’s Dallas-Fort Worth. By 1800, world population was near one billion.
For more than 5,000 years, living rooms were lit by improved designs and better fuels for lamps, candles and fireplaces.
We pick up the story again in early America, in the bloom of revolution.
Whale oil began making its way in America’s markets before 1750 as a superior product used in lamps and candles. Oil from the sperm whale fetched the highest price for giving a bright light with little smoke or smell.
Whale oil production grew steadily for 100 years. The business peaked in 1845 before falling steeply.
Several factors played a part: whales became harder to find, prices rose and cheaper options appeared.
One that caught on was “camphine.” This burning fluid was a mixture of turpentine and alcohol, which was more than a bit explosive.’
The Civil War came on. As a war will do, it strew surprises around in many fields. Alcohol was taxed to pay for the war, raising the cost of camphine. The South captured or sank many whaling ships.
The door lay open for lamps burning kerosene, which was being distilled from seep oil.
People began seeing utility in that black goo down by Oil Creek in Pennsylvania. The first commercially successful oil well was drilled at Titusville in 1859.
If politics then resembled today’s, we would hear that President Abraham Lincoln and his Civil War pandered to petroleum interests. It was really about many things changing in a short time.
With every change, some companies folded and people lost their jobs. Others prospered.
Change sped up. Enter Thomas Edison.
Although he did not invent the light bulb to be the icon for “idea,” this familiar use persists.
Indeed, within 15 years of the Civil War, Edison had invented an electric light bulb with a carbonized bamboo filament that lasted over 1,200 hours.
Two years later, the Pearl Street Station was supplying coal-fired electricity to 82 customers in New York City. The exhaust steam was supplied to buildings on the same block.
In 1890, the Pearl Street power plant burned down. Yet the new way of lighting rooms had proved itself, which took market share from petroleum.
A boundless market for motorcar fuels from crude oil was still a hush in the distance.
An economy has many latent, yet crucial, interlinking parts. These entanglements are strong, the same as the binding force of an ecosystem.
By nature, we see these similarities in different lights.