The Virtual House



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Antique gas and oil lamp
Gas and oil lamp

Gas and oil were used for lighting homes in the nineteenth century. Both were dim and dangerous.

Electric lighting for homes first became possible in the late nineteenth century when the light bulb was invented (by Thomas Edison in Britain and Joseph Swan in America, both in 1879).

Light bulbs were being mass-produced by the mid-1880s, but domestic electric lighting was a luxury until the 1930s.

Advertisment for Peter Jones household lighting
Various lamps (1939) -
click image to enlarge

The electric light bulb has been our main source of artificial light ever since. It’s a glass bulb that is filled with gas. Inside the bulb is a thin coil of wire called the filament. It used to be made of carbon, now a metal called tungsten.

The modern light bulb lasts over twice as long as Edison’s early invention.

In the early days those customers fortunate enough to be able to afford a television were advised to have the light behind them while watching TV – the scientific theory behind the advice may have been a bit dodgy, but massive lampshades and chandeliers did get in the way. These days, adjustable lamps are available in all shapes and sizes so it’s no longer a problem.

Hanging ceiling lights available at the John Lewis Store
Ceiling lights (2004)

Fluorescent lights became popular in the 1950s, and are still typical in kitchens and bathrooms. A fluorescent lamp is a kind of electric light, which has a glass tube that glows and gives out light. The tube is filled with gas. When electricity passes through the gas, it gives off invisible rays. These rays strike a white coating inside the tube and it gives out white light.

Mounted wall spotlight available from the Johm Lewis Store
Wall spotlight (2004)

There was a time when there were three kinds of light. ‘Ambient light’ was provided by a central hanging fitting from the ceiling, ‘task light’ by reading lamps on desks and fluorescent strips beneath kitchen wall cabinets, and ‘accent light’ by a selection of table lamps.

John Lewis Table Lamp 2004
Table lamp (2004)

Today it’s hard to tell which light is performing which function. Technological advances since the 1990s – like fibre optics and illuminated fabrics – have made materials more flexible and lighting a fashion item in its own right – decoration during day, not just light by night.

The modern department store has all kinds of domestic ceiling lights and lamps - modern and traditional, chandeliers, fanlights, lanterns, spotlights. And for all kinds of budgets – you can get desk lamps for under £5 or designer lamps for several hundreds of pounds.


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