Brilliant: the Evolution of Artificial Light by Jane Brox (Souvenir Press) reviewed for the Telegraph.
Jane Brox’s fascinating history is let down by its subtitle. Artificial light good enough to live and work by did not “evolve”; it was, as Brilliant ably demonstrates, the grail of an ugly, stumbling and occasionally farcical 40,000-year quest.
If the first half of Brox’s account is more engaging than the second it’s because, since Edison and Tesla fought their electrical duels in the 1880s, light has ceased to be something we make.
Most of the time, it’s not even a product. It’s a utility – ignored until it fails. Brox’s engagement with her subject never falters, but really, how do you follow tales of Shetland Islanders, threading a wick down a storm petrel’s throat and setting it alight? Or the Javanese thief whose shuttered lantern was powered by fireflies?
Brox handles this sense of diminishing returns head-on. Toughened by her earlier studies of hardscrabble American farm life, she absolutely refuses to succumb to nostalgia.
The first forms of artificial light were smelly and gruesome. According to Herman Melville, even in the bowels of a whaling ship it seemed an outlandish thing that “mortal man should feed upon the creature that feeds his lamp”.
If ever a technology were welcomed without reserve, it was the technique of making candles and lamp oils from something other than the stuff of “the barnyard and the slaughterhouse, from blood and sinew and bone”. Even pure, white candles made from spermaceti – the waxy substance scooped from the head of a sperm whale – were no match for candles made from paraffin, which first appeared around 1850.
The small, independent British publisher, Souvenir Press, is brave to have snapped up this United States title. Popular science from overseas is hard to import. Indeed, Brox does omit much European experience, missing out the 1900 Paris Expo entirely, though 1900 was a vital coming-of-age moment for electric light.
It doesn’t matter: Brox’s concern for the local, the everyday, the rural and the poor gives her book a universal appeal. There’s real passion in the way she uses the tale of power outages to unpick the excesses and inequities of California’s deregulated energy market, and traces the cringing historical correlation between an American’s access to light and the whiteness of their skin.
Enthusiasm for new and better forms of light is powerful and iconoclastic. In the 1830s, thousands were killed and maimed by newfangled camphene lamps, powered by a fuel distilled from turpentine and mixed with alcohol. The stuff wasn’t even cheap. Newness was its only selling point.
Towards the end of the 19th century, massive steel towers were erected over modest cities like Wabash, Indiana. The arc lights they supported were so bright, you could see colours at night. The enthusiastic townsfolk soon found these “second moons” unendurable: they replaced them with street lights.
Brox might have brought this story of Promethean error up to date by exploring the problem of light pollution more deeply than she does. Light pollution isn’t driven by mere carelessness. Our ancient, star-obliterating obsession with more and brighter light shows no sign of abating. Now it’s marring our sunlit hours. Across Europe, vehicles are being fitted with daytime running lights in spite of a pile of ophthalmological evidence that they cause more accidents than they prevent.
Instead, Brox reaches for a sense of closure, and suggests artificial light is losing its significance. It’s being replaced by data. “Any mariner of the 18th century would have found it impossible to comprehend that one day a marker on the Eddystone reef would emit a light equivalent to 570,000 candles,” she writes.
But stranger still is Eddystone’s new obsolescence, replaced by radar, GPS and electronic charts. “Data,” Brox writes, “would become the new lamp.”
This is neatly put, a clever capstone for a narrative that could so easily have petered out – and it’s perfectly true. In 2006, MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte launched the One Laptop per Child campaign to promote world education and citizenship. In one Cambodian village where there is no electricity, Negroponte’s solar-powered and hand-cranked laptops are the brightest light source in the home.