The composite image of the world by night, taken from NASA satellites, is one of the emblematic pictures of the early twenty-first century. Viewed from space, much of Europe, North America, India and East Asia blaze with brilliant light. The United Kingdom is particularly effulgent: London, Birmingham, the north-west, west Yorkshire and the north-east appear as giant luminous globules. Edinburgh and Glasgow have dissolved into a thick, radiant ribbon. Even Cornwall shimmers impressively. Only the Scottish Highlands offer respite from this glare.
The disjuncture between the world viewed from space and the lived world on the ground is, of course, enormous. If one was to walk from the east of Edinburgh to west Glasgow, one's route would not be as uniformly brilliant as the image suggests. This might seem a perfectly obvious, indeed banal, point. Yet long before the appearance of the NASA image, many academic writers had been announcing that night has slowly been obliterated over the past couple of centuries. The French philosopher Michel Foucault, for example, argued that from the eighteenth century a 'fear of darkened spaces' and a desire for transparency and illumination suffused European culture. This was the Enlightenment, after all. Other scholars have concluded that this desire to repel night was fulfilled in the nineteenth century, at least in major Western cities. In Technics and Civilization (1934) the urban critic Lewis Mumford argued that 'light shines on every part of the neoteehnic world: it filters through solid objects, it penetrates fog, it glances back from the polished surfaces of mirrors and electrodes.' By 'neotechnic' Mumford meant the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the age of electricity and synthetic materials. Cultural histories of nineteenth-century European cities routinely describe them as being 'flooded' or 'blazing' with light. This powerful illumination has 'colonized' the night, producing a 'false day', something reinforced by the NASA image. Nothing, perhaps, epitomizes modern humanity's escape from natural parameters more than the ability to turn night into day.
These scholars have, however, seldom viewed the erasure of night as a positive development. In Discipline and Punish (first published in English in 1977), Foucault argued that the modern world was a surveillance society, in which light and vision traps everyone in an inescapable web of insidious supervision. For Foucault, the archetypal structure of surveillance society was Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, a radial prison where all prisoners were permanently visible from a central watchtower. Bentham's design included lamps which would extend this visibility into the night. In other essays, Foucault argued that in the Panopticon illumination was used as a technique of 'subjection'. Panopticism was soon applied beyond the prison, producing a 'general panopticism of society', in which obscure spaces were saturated with light and whole populations subjected to surveillance. Other scholars, following the cultural theorist Walter Benjamin, have argued that modern illumination primarily functions as a spectacle. Light is something to be gazed at rather than subjected to: it is less a trap than the means through which urban centres are made brilliant consumer spaces. A notable example is Rosalind Williams's Dream Worlds: Mass Consumption in Late Nineteenth-Century France (1982), in which fin-de-siecle Paris is described as a 'celestial landscape'.
The origins of our radiant planet, then, lie in the nineteenth century, when gas and electric lights were first introduced into European and American cities. Nineteenth-century commentators were impressed, even disturbed, by the illumination around them. In The Spirit of the Times (1848), written after a visit to London, Ralph Waldo Emerson informed American readers that British newspapers were announcing that there would soon be no more night in London. Richard Le Gallienne's A Ballad of London (1892) described the British capital as the 'Great city of the midnight sun/whose day begins when day is done.' Such literary descriptions certainly suggest that total illumination was present as an idea in the nineteenth-century imagination at least.
A wide range of writers, from Romantic poets to post-structuralist philosophers, have observed that the modern world has become inescapably bright, and connected this brightness to broader trends, such as surveillance and consumerism. Present-day satellites, which cannot embellish or philosophize, appear to provide the most demonstrable proof of their argument. While not entirely wrong, this thesis is somewhat distorted and misleading. There is another history of illumination to be told, which examines light as it was slowly introduced into the streets, houses and public spaces of Britain. This is a history of many different types of light being used for many different purposes, most of which were neither disciplinary nor spectacular. Indeed, much illumination was, and is, designed to create unspectacular places in which we can be entirely alone.
The history of illumination technology is not a linear history of progression from candles to oil, gas and finally electricity. In the nineteenth century, and well into the twentieth, all these technologies coexisted, and, although electricity has become our preferred choice of illuminant in Britain today, its triumph was by no means guaranteed even in 1914. There is a messiness to this history. Gas and electric light were first demonstrated around the same time. Gas was first systematically used as an illuminant in 1792, when William Murdoch used it to light his Redruth home. Humphry Davy experimented with both arc light (in which light is produced from heated, sparking electrodes) and incandescent light (where light is produced from a glowing filament) at the Royal Institution in London in the first decade of the nineteenth century.
The two illuminants had rather different fortunes for most of the next century. Gaslight expanded rapidly: it was first used in factories, and then streets, public buildings and homes. London had 288 miles of gas mains by 1820. A gas light company was formed in Preston in 1815. Stockton-on-Tees was gaslit in 1822, and Burnley in 1826. By the 1870s, even some villages with populations under 1000 had gasworks. Meanwhile, serious technological problems, especially unreliable and expensive generation, delayed the introduction of electric light systems until the final couple of decades of the century. Britain's first electric power station was built at Godalming, Surrey, in 1881. A year later, London's first station was built at Holborn. But there was no immediate spread of electric light across the country. In 1885, the invention of the gas mantle, a form of flameless gaslight, gave renewed impetus to the gas industry. In 1902, Liverpool, which one leading engineer regarded as Britain's best-lit city, had 9,000 gas mantles and only 150 electric arc lights on its streets. Electric light developed rather more slowly in Britain than in other industrializing nations, notably the United States and Germany.
This complicated history of artificial light was easily simplified, however, and routinely connected to histories of national progress or the rise of civilization. This was particularly true for gaslight, without which, according to the chemist Frederick Accum in 1820, human beings would 'be condemned to a state little superior in efficacy to that of the animals around us'. In his Historical Sketch of the Origin and Progress of Gas Lighting (1832), William Matthews argued that gas light was produced by, and stimulated, greater invention, allowing enterprise to continue beyond nightfall. Because modern forms of illumination first developed in the west, they reinforced a pre-existing sense of technological superiority over the rest of the world, which now appeared, more than ever, radically benighted. In 1900, the ethnologist Walter Hough observed insouciantly that:
It may be a wholesome correction of our pride in the advance of a century to reflect that most of the human race is still in the uninventive period, depending for light on torches and simple saucer lamps ... Still, there is progress, and gradually tribes, from their beginnings unacquainted with more than most simple illuminating methods, are seeking more light.
Why did people in Burnley, Godalming and Stockton-on-Tees 'seek more light'? Contemporary academics have rightly abandoned the simplistic and racist logic of the likes of Hough. But they have often produced a marginally less simplistic alternative, in which light was used to coercively observe populations, or to oil the wheels of capital consumption. While the history of modern illumination is partly a history of policing and consumption, it is far more than either. This is apparent when one examines the sheer variety of uses for illumination. During the nineteenth century, lights of many types (including oil lamps and candles) were used by surgeons to scrutinize the visceral depths of the human body, by bakers to illuminate their giant ovens, by railway passengers to read their newspapers, by scientists peering into their microscopes, by colonial armies transmitting information across forbidding central Asian terrain, and by inspectors peering into manholes. These activities simply cannot be shoehorned into a simple historical story of control or capital. The lighting of streets and houses gives some idea of the complexity of the subject.
Street lighting expanded enormously in the nineteenth century. Pall Mall was the world's first gaslit street (1807). In London, the proliferation of gas companies had rather chaotic consequences: by the 1840s and 1850s, the mains of up to four different companies shared the limited space beneath some metropolitan streets. By 1885, only three companies remained. In northern English and Scottish cities, gas was more commonly owned by municipalities, who attempted to make street lighting more systematic. In Glasgow, for example, the municipal government passed an 1866 act to secure better lighting of the city's streets, courts, alleyways, stairs and clocks. According to The Builder, there were 375,536 public lamps in England and Wales in 1883. In 1892, the Journal of Gas Lighting announced that it would soon be possible to walk from Manchester to Liverpool entirely by gaslit roads.
This development of street lighting had undeniable aspects of 'surveillance'. The equation of darkness with fear and crime is a very old one, as is the idea that light prevents criminal activity. Manchester's first public gas lamp was established outside the police station, in the appropriately-named Police Street in 1807. Manchester's police ran the gasworks from 1817 to 1843, when it passed into municipal ownership. Legislation allowing towns to raise money for street lamps often explicitly cited the threat to public order. Gas engineers themselves often saw gaslight as a powerful instrument against crime. An 1878 treatise on gas manufacture argued that the 'opportunities for crime' would be 'indefinitely increased' if side streets remained as dark as main ones. In The Domestic Uses of Coal Gas (1884), the gas engineer William Sugg expressed this point succinctly: 'burglars, as a rule, do not like the assistance afforded by a gaslight'. Others saw gaslight as an agent of more general moralization, like the vicar of a Huddersfield suburb who led a deputation demanding gaslight in 1865, or Joseph Chamberlain, who regarded illumination as a way of promoting cleanliness.
Surveillance, obviously, had many faces. However, the purpose of street lighting was not merely to instill discipline, sobriety or cleanliness. Its most basie function was to enable the circulation of nocturnal traffic, by providing minimum or even optimum conditions of visibility. It also had to provide light during daytime fogs, which were common and intense, forming what Alfred Carpenter, the president of the British Medical Association, described in 1882 as a 'muddy pool of turbid filth' through which people 'have not infrequently to grope their way'. Vehicles were increasingly illuminated. Ships were legally bound to use illuminants at night from 1852. All London cabs were legally lit from 1869, as were bicycles from the early twentieth century. With the arrival of the faster automobile in the early twentieth century, street lighting was required so that traffic could be more visible from a distance. In 1921, the illuminating engineer Alexander Trotter observed how electric streetlights enabled road traffic to move "at a pace which a few years ago would have been condemned as reckless and furious'.
Despite attempts to introduce system into municipal lighting, there was no common agreement on the situation and dimensions of lamp-posts, for example. In 1902, West Bromwich's gas mantles were 75 yards apart, while Saffron Waldon's were 27 yards apart. Chester's arclamps were positioned on posts 15 feet tan, while some of Bournemouth's were on 64-foot poles. Moreover, most of Britain still relied, to a greater or lesser extent, on moonlight. This was not simply the case in rural areas. In Croydon, street lamps along one side of the street were switched oft at midnight. In Exeter, two out of every three arc lamps were extinguished at the same time. Midnight clearly retained its significance. Meanwhile, oil lamps persisted in many towns while new illumination systems were often far dimmer than the public were led to believe. The engineer Walton Grafton, writing in 1907, concluded that 'many of the central thoroughfares in our towns are badly lighted, and were it not for the shop-lights, some would have but a dismal and deserted appearance'.
This dimness was not always the result of idiosyncrasy, apathy, parsimony or poor engineering, however. Spectacular, penetrating illumination simply was not wanted or needed in most places. The brief American vogue for tower lighting - towers over a hundred feet high bearing several very bright electric lights--particularly evident in the 1880s, was seldom imitated elsewhere. Doctors raised concerns about potential eye damage from gazing at bright lights. Edward Nettleship (1845-1913), a leading ophthalmic surgeon, reported that excessive focus on powerful arc lights could produce symptoms similar to snow-blindness. In 1880, the Electrician concluded that 'to light a whole city with a huge electrical sun is a great scientific achievement; but it is not the sort of light that anybody wants'. Urban illumination was usually quite consciously variegated. According to one early twentieth-century estimate, illumination in suburban areas was usually around one-tenth the strength of that of main urban thoroughfares. Working-class neighbourhoods, where most crime was actually committed, remained darker still, as the electrical engineer Haydn Harrison wryly noted in 1905:
There is little doubt that street lighting originated in a desire to prevent crime: if this had been carried to its logical conclusion, the slums and alleys of our cities would be better lighted than the parts occupied by the more peaceful, law-abiding citizens, which is certainly not the case.
Lighting the way for traffic and aiding law enforcement, then, was limited to certain streets and neighbourhoods. It was a local, not a general phenomenon, and even in places where public light was concentrated, it was seldom allowed to penetrate private space. The free individual had a right to be protected from over-illumination. This process is most evident in the history of domestic illumination. Before the nineteenth century, homes were lit by oil, candles or rushlights. The introduction of gas and later, electricity introduced new technologies which both connected the home to industrial networks and secured a historically novel capacity to control illumination. Two technologies associated with this latter development: the flexible lamp and the switch, though in themselves unexceptional objects, can tell us much about the way illumination has been used over the last century or so.
Engineers responsible for lighting homes routinely argued that specific rooms needed specific lighting arrangements. Billiard rooms required specially-focused banks of lights, while staircases should be liberally lit to avoid falls. The inside of a wealthy Victorian home showed more illuminatory variegation than the whole of twenty-first century London viewed from space. Many rooms used flexible lamps. In reading rooms, they allowed close scrutiny of books, while in kitchens, lamps might be lowered to the table to help cooks. These mobile lamps were the kinds of objects that symbolized upward mobility, Robert Roberts, in The Classic Slum, his 1971 memoir of early twentieth-century Salford life, recalled his father's pride in his adjustable lamp. He 'would demonstrate how its three upright gas mantles (classier than the inverted type) could be raised almost to the ceiling or lowered by means of three large pear-shaped weights'. However, the most mobile light of all remained the candle. Electrophilic engineers still recommended them for bedside use well into the twentieth century.
The light switch is among the most omnipresent, forgettable domestic technologies, but its introduction marked a break with the traditional way light was used. The electric light switch, commonly made of porcelain by the 1880s, enabled instantaneous control over light. It was often promoted as a major advance on gaslight, which often necessitated laborious twisting of taps and stopcocks. Gas engineers quickly responded, devising pneumatic switches to allow similar control over gaslight. Switches appeared everywhere from mines and ocean liners to dolls houses and water closets. Automatic switches might be fitted in this latter room, which opened along with the door. When equipped with boltable doors, security from the gaze of others was combined with ample quantities of light. Here was a place where one could hang a mirror and experience genuine narcissism.
This mixture of light, space and secure solitude is about as far from panopticism or spectacle as is possible. It is, also, rather more familiar to modern Britons, since our homes are built to allow such episodic isolation. Again, this was a nineteenth-century development. This was when the home was increasingly partitioned into special rooms dedicated to particular functions: cooking, bathing, sleeping. In House Architecture (1880), the architect J.J. Stevenson observed of the English that 'with us, from our love of seclusion and retirement, each room must be isolated'. Domestic architecture was being built to allow escape from both the company and the gaze of others. This process included the slow diffusion of locks, bolts, screens, opaque glass (to admit light, but not vision), and curtains (around hospital beds as well as across windows). Such spatial differentiation and voluntary isolation was first discernable in the houses of the rich, but reached its apogee, because of the density of bodies and demands on space, in working-class housing, especially blocks built in the later nineteenth century. In model dwellings erected by South London Dwellings Company, for example, water closets were private and each tenant was given a key. A peculiarly modern practice like reading on the toilet was first facilitated, then democratized, through technologies of privacy.
These model dwellings were often equipped with gas and electric light. The ultimate control of such light might not rest with the tenants, however. The Peabody Trust, which started running model homes from the 1860s, extinguished lights and locked doors at 11pm, although tenants were given keys. There was something vaguely prison-like about this arrangement. This reminds us that issues of class and power were never far away from those with control over light. Indeed, for most of the nineteenth century, gaslight was limited to middle-class and wealthy houses. In 1888, for example, fewer than a quarter of Crewe's houses were lit by gas. It took the development of the prepayment (or 'penny-in-the-slot') meter in the 1890s to really introduce gaslight into the working-class home. The poor were evidently regarded as being too prodigal and short-sighted to use energy carefully and budget for a large bill. They were thus quite likely to have another particularly modern experience: running out of energy and being forced to sit in darkness.
The modern history of illumination cannot simply be told as a history of surveillance or spectacle. It is a much more complicated, jumbled, mundane and interesting history. It is a history of bicycle lamps, reading on the toilet, curious lamp-post arrangements, illuminated billiard tables, and the petty despotism of the prepayment gas meter. It is a history in which the moon and the mottled darkness retain a major role, and candles a far from peripheral one. It is a history in which the functional dullness and ubiquity of street lights bespeaks the fact that spectacle must be highly episodic to be effective.
It is also, finally, a history of how control over, and escape from, light became integral to a modern world which values privacy and liberty as much as security. An examination of street lamps, switches, reading lamps and gas meters shows us how particular forms of seclusion and solitude have become so normal that we easily forget about them, even when we complain about transgressions of our privacy. The history of illumination over the last coup]e of centuries, in Britain, as well as much of Western Europe and North America, is the history of how a surveillance society was deliberately avoided as much as it may have been consciously or unconsciously created. The West might glitter and dazzle from space, but, thankfully, the closer one gets to the light, the less menacing it seems.
Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Belknap, 2002); Brian Bowers, Lengthening the Day: A History of Lighting Technology (Oxford University Press, 1998); Tom Crook, "Power, Privacy and Pleasure: Liberalism and the Modern Cubicle," Cultural Studies, 21: 4 & 5, 2007, 549-569; Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison (Penguin, 199 I);John Jakle, City Lights: Illuminating the American Night (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001); Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilisation (Harbinger Books, 1963); Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Disenchanted Night: The Industrialisation of Light in the Nineteenth Century (Berg 1988).
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Chris Otter is Assistant Professor of Modern European History at Ohio State University and author of The Victorian Eye: A Political History of Light and Vision in Britain, 1800-1910 (University of Chicago Press, 2008).…