Let’s take a trip back, way back to 400,000 BC, to uncover how our ancestors used light to get on with their daily lives. As we embark on this lighting journey, I’ll uncover how each ‘light bulb moment’ has revolutionised the way we light or homes and offices each day.
1. Light by Fire – 400,000 BC
Before electricity, our ancestors had to made fire to provide light in the dark. The first portable light was a bundle of sticks with fire at the end – the equivalent of a torch today! This was a popular lighting tool for caveman so that they could navigate through the darkness and to scare away predators.
2. The First Electric Light Bulb – 1879
Contrary to popular belief, the original inventor of the electric light bulb was Englishmen Sir Joseph Swann – not his rival, Thomas Edison. The two were working to create the world’s first electric light bulb in conjunction with one another. Edison patented his electric light bulb in 1879 – however this was an improved design from Swann’s patented light bulb 10 years previously! A law battle commenced and the British court rules against Edison – so much so that Edison had to make Swann his partner.
Swann learnt that once electrical current flows through the bulb’s filament, the filament warms up and produces light. The glass bulb housing acts as a vacuum, making sure that the filament does not get oxidised, allowing the glow to last longer. Swann’s invention consisted of carbonised paper filament, but the poor quality of vacuum caused the carbon paper to disintegrate very quickly – resulting in the bulb lasting for a mere 13 hours! Edison’s improved design consisted of him rigorously testing vacuum pumps with bamboo filament which lasted up to an impressive 1,200 hours.
3. Fluorescent Tubes – 1901
Peter Cooper Hewitt, an American electrical engineer, and his colleague, Leo Arons, a German physicist, developed the first mercury vapour lamps in 1901. The gas-charged lamp used mercury vapour by passing current through liquid mercury. However, these lamps had to be physically tilted so that the light can turn on. This frustrating tilting was later reconciled by Hewitt developing an electric ballast. At the time, the efficiency was greater than the incandescent light bulbs that Swann and Edison had worked on but the light that was emitted from the tubes were green and blue colours – limiting their use in most applications.
30 years later, the fluorescent tube evolved – a phosphor coating was added to the inside of the fluorescent tube which provided a more pleasing light output when it absorbed the ultraviolet light from the mercury.
4. Introducing the first LED light – 1994
Japanese-born, American electronic engineer and inventor, Shuji Nakamura, and his team invented the first ever blue LED light. Blue LEDs proved to be more difficult. White light was simpler to make as it is made up of a combination of blue, red and green diodes. By using a semi-conductor gallium nitride, Nakamura and his team created the first blue LED in 1994. The invention of the blue LED was a major breakthrough in LED lighting technology as this enabled bright and energy-saving lighting to be used across the globe. In 2014, Nakamura and his team picked up the Physics Nobel Prize for this invention.
5. Li-Fi – 2011 onwards
Short for ‘light fidelity’, Li-Fi is a wireless, visible light communication system which runs at super fast speeds to deliver light. Li-Fi was invented by Professor Harald Haas of Edinburgh University in 2011. Hass visioned that light bulbs would act as wireless routers. Li-Fi enables LED lights to transfer data, boasting speeds of up to 224Gb a second! When compared to Wi-Fi, which transmits data using radio waves, Li-Fi transmits via visible light. More impressively, Li-Fi is more secure than Wi-Fi as it has a shorter range, and is 100 times faster.
Li-Fi technology is currently being trialled by leading airlines, testing the performance of in-flight connectivity – an example of this is the streaming of HD films within a matter of seconds.