A Little Tact and Skill


I want you to read something from 1912, by Louis Bell in “The Art of Illumination”: “In electric lighting the most strenuous efforts are constantly being made to improve the efficiency of the incandescent lamp by a few percent…. Yet in lighting generally and domestic lighting in particular, a little skill and tact in use of the lights we now have can effect an economy far greater than all the material improvements of the last years…” – Louis Bell “The Art of Illumination” 1912, McGraw-Hill Book Company

The challenge of creating efficient affordable lighting has been with our species as long as we have had shelter. For most of history, providing lighting for the home has been a filthy, expensive, dangerous business which cost us dearly in terms of time and labor and even (when fire was involved as it nearly always was) our lives. We (in the industrialized West) cannot imagine the work that went into cutting reeds and dipping them in oil to fashion a few moments of dull glow in the evening or the mess, smell and precision that went into fashioning candles out of rendered fat or beeswax. When we finally got lamps of whale oil (which created the first ‘carnage for oil’) and then paraffin, everything in the home (every fabric, every surface) was coated in a greasy soot, and with gas we lived with the dangers of explosions or suffocation…

Careful use of lighting was more than a virtue, it was a way of life.

And then we got electricity. For a while, we were careful – light still seemed like an achievement – but then at some point we just went wild. We put light everywhere, and we ran it all the time.

So now it’s over, our brief hundred-or-so-year party, and we are back to limits and while the companies that sell us electricity and light bulbs argue that yet another form of light source, a New Bulb is the way to deal with a scarcity of resources. I would suggest (like my colleague writing above in 1912!) that a little tact and skill in using what we do have is the right way forward.

This is the subject of this blog on lighting. It begins a conversation about how we might creatively rethink our use of light rather than a set of instruction for what new product to buy…