Brilliant by Jane Brox


We take lighting for granted. By the time you finish Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light you won’t.
The book starts in a cave where we meet our ancestors, huddled over a flame. We learn what it took to keep that flame alive, and what that flame meant to the start of civilization. You’ll learn that light and civilization go hand in hand. The book follows the history of man’s relationship with creating light: fire, candles, whale oil, coal gas, kerosene, and electricity. But the story doesn’t end there. Electricity has it’s own history: arc lights, incandescent lamps, fluorescent lamps, LEDs, etc. All this light makes modern life possible, but it also brings problems, which are discussed in Part IV.

The best chapters are on Rural Electrification in the US. The weakest chapters are on Fluorescent lamps and anything technical. I would like to find a book that would cover more of the technical history of light to compliment this book which covers the social aspects. I like Brox’s style and enjoyed reading the book.

373 pages

Amazon Book Preview of “Brilliant

Excerpts from the book:

Consequently, most American households at the turn of the twentieth century were much brighter than those of the past. In 1800, in the United States, $20 a year would light a house for three hours in the evening with a luminosity equivalent to 5 candles, or 5,500 candle hours per year and many householders would have considered that much light an extravagance. By mid-century, $20 would purchase 8,700 candle hours per year; in 1890, 73,000 candle hours. By 1900, for $20 a year, on average, people lit their homes (exclusive of electricity) for five hours a night with a luminosity equivalent to 154 candles, or 280,000 candle hours. That miners once worked by the phosphorescence of putrescent fish and lacemakers produced intricate designs by the light of a flame magnified through water must have seemed incomprehensible to them.
page 156

Light may have been the least of it; certainly electric irons, washers, pumps, and milling machines would make a greater difference in their lives. But in the late 1930s and 1940s, when electricity finally came, it was the light they were waiting for. To see (and be seen) beyond the circumference of the kitchen able, to see into the corners of a room or into a husband’s face in the evening, “was wonderful. Just like going from darkness into daylight.” One farmer observed, “I’ll never forget the day when they announced the electric was turned on. I waited till dark to do my chores. I had the barn all lit up like a Christmas tree. Oh, that seemed nice, especially the stable you didn’t have to look where you was goin’.” The moment a house was supposed to be connected to the electric lines was known as “zero hour,” and people would flip their switches on and off to make sure they didn’t miss the instant of connection. The first thing some did once they were hooked up was to turn on every light and then drive down the road just to look back at their illuminated home.
pages 200–201

Bibliographic Note

I am especially indebted to the following books for insight and inspiration:

  • Gaston Bachelard, The Flame of a Candle, translated by Joni Caldwell (Dallas: Dallas Institute Publications, 1988)
  • William T. O’Dea, The Social History of Lighting (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1958)
  • Wolfgang Schivelbush, Disenchanted Night: The Industrialization Of Light in the Nineteenth Century, translated by Angela Davies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) and..
  • Ruspoli, The Cane of Lascaux: The Final Photographs (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987).

The first section of Brilliant owes much to

  • A. Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past (New York: W W Norton, 2005)
  • Yi-Fu Tuan, “The City: Its Distance from Nature,” Geographical Review 68, no. 1 (January 1978)
  • Louis-Sébasden Mercier, Panorama Of Paris, edited by Jeremy D. Popkin (University Park: Pennsylvania University Press, 1999)
  • Richard Ellis, Men and Whales (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991) and..
  • D. Alan Stevenson, The World’s Lighthouses Before 1820 (London: Oxford University Press, 1959)

Chapter 2 owes a particular debt to Wolfgang Schivelbush for insight concerning lanterns and the French Revolution, and to Yi-Fu Tuan for thoughts on cities and their separation from the natural world. For the chapters on electricity, I’m grateful to..

  • Brian Bowers, Lengthening the Day: A History of Lighting Technology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998)
  • Philip Dray, Stealing Goal’s Thunder: Benjamin Franklin’s Lightning Rod and the Invention of America (New York: Random House, 2005)
  • Jill Jonnes, Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World (New York: Random House, 2004)
  • Robert Friedel and Paul Israel, Ellison’s Electric Light: Biography of an Invention (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987) and..
  • Pierre Berton, Niagara: A History of the Falls (New York: Kodansha International, 1997).

For the chapters on early-twentieth-century light, I relied largely on..

  • Morris Llewellyn Cooke, ed., Giant Power: Large Scale Electrical Development as a Social Factor (Philadelphia: Academy of Political and Social Science, 1925)
  • David E. Nye, Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880–1940 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992)
  • Katherine Jellison, Entitled to Power: Farm Women and Technology, 1913–1963 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993)
  • Robert A. Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path To Power (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982)
  • Mary Ellen Romeo, Darkness to Daylight: An Oral History Of Rural Electrification in Pennsylvania and New Jersey (Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Rural Electric Association, 1986)
  • James Ages and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Three Tenant Families (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988)
  • Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Experts’ Advice to Women (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1978) and..
  • Michael J. McDonald and John Muldowny, TVA and the Dispossessed: The Resettlement of Population in the Norris Dam Area (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1982).

Chapter 15, especially the section on the sounds of war, owes much to..

  • Angus Calder, The People’s War: Britain, 1939–45 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1969).

And for the final section of the book, I’m indebted to..

  • Rosenthal, ed., The Night the Lights Went Out (New York: New American Library, 1965)
  • Catherine Rich and Travis Longcore, eds., Ecological Consequences of Artificial Night Lighting (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2006) and..
  • The International Dark-Sky Association website

pages 310–312


About craigmaas

I do a little web design work and support a couple web sites and blogs. My primary focus is lighting and energy consulting where I use a number of computer tools to help my customer find ways of saving money and improving their work environment. See my web site for more information:
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