Thursday, October 13, 2011

Thinking About the Dark

I recently completed reading Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light, by Jane Box.  I have to say I found it strangely compelling, and I finished it with a real sense of regret.  What I found most poignant were the chapters that dealt with light on farms and cities in the 19th and very early 20th centuries.  It is not that anything that the author wrote was not something I was wholly unaware of, but some of it she combined in ways that had not occurred to me.  For example, her writing about the joy that farmers felt when they could actually milk the cows in a barn with light, and not have to worry about the risk of fire or explosion.

Indeed, one of the major reasons our ancestors went to bed early was that there was no light to do anything.  While city dwellers had gaslight to light the streets, their homes were under the the same restrictions as farmers with only candles or kerosene to light their rooms, and in the country night must have fallen like a pall, without even gaslit roads for illumination.

What Brilliant brought home to me (again), is how much we may romanticize the past that our ancestors lived in, glossing over the warts, cuts, smells, and just plain drudgery of everyday life for our mostly rural (and urban) ancestors.  Not that there is not much that was good, but in terms of lights, in the countryside when the sun went down, outdoor life stopped.  Even indoor life slowed greatly.  As the 19th century progressed the quality of the light available improved as kerosene lamps took over from candles, but as anyone who has lived with kerosene lamps knows (as I do), they are nothing when compared to an electric light bulb in terms of safety, steadiness, reliability, and sheer convenience.

We have much to be thankful for.

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