The Human Origins of Lighting

You might find it hard to believe, evidence of the first lamp appears to date all the way back to 70,000 BC.  Of course, this was not an electric lamp; instead, scientists have determined that the first lamps might have been hollowed out rocks, shells, or other natural objects which were filled with moss or another similar, natural material and then soaked with animal fat and ignited.  Eventually, of course, humans began to fashion manmade lamps out of pottery (as well as other materials like alabaster and metal) by imitating shapes that occurred in nature.  While this probably would have become quite common, it was not until the 7th century BC that Greeks began to make terra cotta lamps to finally replace handheld torches.

As a matter of fact, it is the Greek word for torch—“lampas”—from which we derive our word, “lamps.”


The use of animal fat eventually evolved into oil as a fuel for these lamps.  By the 1700s, engineers had developed a central burner concept which kept the fuel in a tightly enclosed metal container.  Another adjustable metal tube allowed for control of the fuel dispensary and that would allow for adjustment of flame intensity (and thus, the brightness of the light).  Obviously, this fruitfully improved lamp design.  It was also around this time that small glass chimneys were added to lamps. This addition served to protect the flame and control the air flow.

The earliest lighting fuels would have consisted of things like fish oil, whale oil, sesame oil, nut oil, beeswax, and olive oil.  These would have been the most commonly available materials in the 18th century. However, petroleum drilling introduced kerosene, coal, and natural gas production led to new fuels, too.

A quick note:  In 1783, a Swiss chemist by the name of Ami Argand is credited with first developing the principal which employed an oil lamp with a hollow, circular wick enclosed by a glass chimney.  


The German inventor Freidrich Winzer is credited with the first patent for a coal gas light, dating to 1804. However, the very first commercial use of gas as lamp fuel began in 1792 when William Murdoch used coal goas to light his home in Redruth, Cornwall.  The first US gas light patent was filed in 1810.

By the 19th century, most US and European city streets were lit by gaslight.  These street lights led to low-pressure sodium and high-pressure mercury lamps in the 1930s which, of course, soon after led to electric lighting.