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Visual Histories

The Iridescent History of Light

May 17, 2018 | 8 videos
Video by The Atlantic

400,000 years ago, humans and Neanderthals discovered fire. This ignited a relationship between people and photons that changed the course of mankind—and continues to evolve to this day. Take a tour through the visual history of light in the video above, and read below for further information on the inventions.

  • 400,000 BCE: Humans and Neanderthals deliberately begin making wood fire.

  • 13,000 BCE: Humans create primitive animal grease lamps made from hollow rocks and shells, stuffed with moss, and coated in grease.

  • 3,000 BCE: The "rushlight" candle is invented in Ancient Egypt. It is made of a pithy stalk of rush soaked in animal fat.

  • 1500 BCE: Babylonian/Assyrian lamps are created from olive or sesame oil. They had a linen wick and were fashioned from stone, terracotta, metal, or shells.

  • 100 CE: The Romans create the tallow candle, which has a small wick with a thick, hand-formed layer of tallow.

  • 1780 CE: Ami Argand greatly improves the oil lamp, adding a hollow wick and glass chimney. He calls it the Hollow Wick and Burner Lamp.

  • 1792 CE: William Murdoch invents the first coal gas lighting system.

  • 1802 CE: Humphry Davy creates the arc light—the first electric lighting—but it's way too bright for indoor use.

  • 1838 - 80 CE: Thomas Edison purportedly invented the light bulb—or did he? In reality, the bulb was invented slowly over the course of 40 years by 25+ inventors from around the world.

  • 1853 - 68 CE: Gas becomes popular, but is not accessible to rural areas. These areas turn to kerosene lamps with Dietz burners.

  • 1860 CE: Electric dynamo machines begin powering lighthouses.

  • 1861 CE: Charles Piazzi Smyth mixes gunpowder and magnesium to create the first flash photograph in the King's Chamber in the Great Pyramid.

  • 1868 CE: Pavel Yablochkov makes dramatic improvements to the arc lamp (parallel carbon rods and alternating current), rendering it efficient, and thus viable. It begins to be used in Paris.

  • 1879 CE: Charles Brush unveils his arc street lighting system in Cleveland.

  • 1880s CE: The first moon towers, or suspended groups of arc lamps, are built all around the United States. Aurora, Illinois is one of the first places to experiment with them.

  • 1901 - 32 CE: Peter Cooper Hewitt demonstrates the mercury-vapor lamp. As a result, General Electric leaves behind filament bulbs for mercury discharge lamps.

  • 1900s CE: Georges Claude passes electricity through a tube of neon, producing a red glow—the first neon light.

  • 1925 CE: Kenjiro Takayanagi demonstrates a CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) television that received images with a 40-line resolution. John Logie Baird successfully transmits a 30-line vertically scanned image this same year.

  • 1929 CE: Hungarian physicist Kálmán Tihanyi invents the infrared-sensitive (night vision) electronic television camera for anti-aircraft defense in the UK.

  • 1960s CE: Gordon Gould invents the laser, which goes on to revolutionize retail with the scannable barcode.

  • 1962 CE: Nick Holonyak Junior develops the first practical LED (Light-Emitting Diode).

  • 1964 CE: George H. Heilmeier builds the first functional LCD (Liquid-Crystal Display) based on the "dynamic scattering mode."

  • 1970 CE: Corning Glass patents fiber optic cables.

  • 1987 CE: Ching W. Tang and Steven Van Slyke build the first practical OLED device at Eastman Kodak.

  • 2013 CE: The National Ignition Facility announces that it has created a positive energy output by firing 192 lasers at a hydrogen fuel pellet, demonstrating hydrogen fusion.

For more on the relationship between humans and light, check out Stephen Ong's "The Evolution of Light."

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Author: Atthar Mirza

About This Series

The animated visual histories behind things in everyday life.