That cursed newfangled technology, “electric lights”


Up to the middle of the 19th century, cities were lit at night by gas lighting, candles, or flame — a soft, gentle radiance! But that changed around 1855 when electricians unleashed the first “arc lamps”, which were Promethean in their intensity.

What was it like when they turned on the first arc lights? Here’s a description from All The Time In The World:

“One could in fact have believed that the sun had risen,” a journalist wrote, reporting on scientific experiments with outdoor arc lighting in Lyon in 1855. “The light, which flooded a large area, was so strong that ladies opened up their umbrellas — not as a tribute to the inventors, but in order to protect themselves from the rays of this mysterious new sun.”

But not everyone was happy with this newfangled high-tech:

As demand for the technology grew, many resisted electricity’s brilliant new glow. It was just too bright. It lent a “corpse-like quality” to those subjected to its glare, one Londoner argued, and it could make a crowd look “almost dangerous and garish.”   Robert Louis Stevenson penned “A Plea for Gas Lamps” in 1878, hoping to dissuade London’s authorities from installing obnoxious electric streetlamps like those in Paris.  “A new sort of urban star now shines at nightly,” he wrote, “horrible, unearthly, obnoxious to the human eye; a lamp for a nightmare!”

Those damned millenials and their electricity. In a way, though, I can’t blame Stevenson. Version 1.0 of most technologies is often dreadful, and electric lighting was no different. Check out that picture above of New Orleans: Man, it looks like they’re walking around underneath an explosion. It reminds me of our current problems with low-energy lighting. I keep on buying super-efficient LED bulbs, but they always wind up making my house look like a surgical theater; I try to curl up with a book but it’s all horror-movie blue-spectrum pallor. They’ll eventually figure this out, but living through 1.0 of any new tech is always a pain.


28 thoughts on “That cursed newfangled technology, “electric lights”

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  4. Andrew

    If you want something LED that is closer in light spectrum to what a regular incandescent bulb puts out, look for “warm white” or 2500 – 3000K (

    I once purchased some el-cheapo LED lights off Ebay, and ended up selecting the “cool white” (3100 – 4500K) – after I installed them in my office ceiling fan, everything looked morbid (it’s the best description I can think of) – too blue-white, too white, not enough yellow. So I bought another set from the same supplier – but in “warm white”. Popped those in, and they look great. The others I have relegated to other uses where I don’t care about the color (outdoor lights and such, mainly).

    1. Clive Post author

      Thanks! I’m pretty sure part of my problem is that I’ve been buying overly cheap ones … I’ll give these a shot.

  5. Tom

    Yeah, arc lamps are pretty rough. The name is literal, they make light by an electric arc–there’s just a raw exposed spark there.

    They don’t have an exact color temperature, but they’re probably close to a 7000k light, bluer than most anything you’d fine. And you get lots of free UV with your light, even the sweet UV-C kind. Hell, on a good day there might even be some x-rays in there.

    1. Clive Post author

      X-rays, that is pretty metal.

      I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen arc lights myself, but I’ve seen lots of pictures of Hollywood-style arc lights that look absolutely blinding.

      1. Tom

        Promethean, even. The mature part of me is glad that we’r e not having our livers eaten by giant birds/blasting ionizing radiation everywhere, but the little part kid is kind of disappointed that we’ve tamed the forces of nature to the point of blandness.

    1. Clive Post author

      Thank you! I use voice dictation to transcribe snippets of books, which produces a lot of these wrong-word substitutions … I clearly need to proofread the output more carefully.

    2. Charles Howlett

      I think it was a play on words, we bring electricity to cities so ergo ‘Electricities’!!

  6. Bob Fairmead

    In the 70s, my dad in law had a caravan that had a gas fridge and gas lights. The light was much softer and cozier than any electric I’ve used since.

      1. Clive Post author

        Those are really lovely. I remember replacing the little thingy — the web? the … what do you call that little basket-like thingy? — while camping in Ontario with the Boy Scouts in the late 70s.

  7. Kdizz

    Modern LEDs have a comparable spectrum to incandescent lights. Most super efficient and cheap LEDs do this by cutting out ‘on-time’ not by cutting out a part of the spectrum like fluorescent lights. This can cause an uncomfortable flickering experience for some.
    Incandescent lights are not inefficient becaude they emmit the full spectrum, they are inefficient because they emmit most radiation outside the visible spectrum, infrared, around 90% is emitted as IR radiation in classical incandescent bulbs.

  8. Mike in Austin

    Color of the light does matter. And billions have been spent by photographers, lighting designers in movies etc trying to get the perfect light values. It’s not just lumens but what colors make up the light itself.

    I hate CFCs and the whole false reason to install them (if we really want to cut energy usage quit giving out building permits).

    Add that to install electric lights meant electric wires. The mayor of San Francisco, when discussing whether to put cable cars or electric trains stated “there is no way I am blanketing this beautiful cities streets under a net of electrical wires.”

    What’s the point of beautiful architecture if you have to look through a spaghetti network of wires to see a building.

    The best way to destroy a scenic view is to place electrical wires all across it:

  9. Throwaway

    Bruh. You keep buying the wrong color temperature of your bulbs lolololol. They make them in the same color as incandescents and in every other color white you can think of. You want soft white, not cool white or daylight. It’s measured in Kelvin. Here’s a chart for you Mr. Smarty Pants –

    TL;DR version of your article should be: User error. Purchased wrong light bulb color.

    1. Ed

      The temperature of a light source is only part of the picture. The way high efficiency bulbs save energy is by omitting large sections of the spectrum, (and by reducing heat and other non-visible radiation). Sunlight is an example of a full spectrum. All colors of light are available simultaneously. Florescent lights have a cycling and extremely small portion of the spectrum, and LEDs are missing more than half of the spectrum. The key here is each color pigment in the room reflects a portion of the spectrum better than the rest. That’s why it has a color, which is probably largely missing from fluorescent, and only partially covered by LED. If you photograph color charts under these varied light sources, even all at the same color temperature, you will find that some colors do not reflect as well as others, and colors are sporadically color shifted. The “sum” of the spectrum is the color temperature.

      Incandescent bulbs have a comparatively full spectrum, (which is why they are inefficient), but reflect ALL colors in a more natural fashion. Some people are more sensitive to color shifts than others, but there is a vast quality of light difference between incandescent and high-efficiency light sources. So please refrain from your troll-ish insults without first learning that you don’t get something for nothing in the energy conservation game.

      1. Clive Post author

        Very good analysis here: I think I’m definitely aesthetically missing some of the spectra that I’m accustomed to getting from incandescent!

        Still, I very much do want to save the energy — man alive do you ever notice the difference in energy usage when you flip between an incandescent bulb and an LED one. I think I need to just keep on experimenting with different LED bulbs. I’m sure I’ll eventually a) find something that matches roughly what I’m looking for, while also b) grow adjusted to the new color of light. That’s how all these technology shifts become domesticated; the tech improves at the same time as our expectations adjust, then pretty soon it’s the new normal!

      2. Derick

        Thunderf00t on youtube just went through this with sunlight, incandescent, CFL and LED. Check it out:


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