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Exploring the History of Lights Via a Dimly Lit Tour

March 24, 2019 GMT

LOWELL -- Visitors to the Spalding House on a recent late winter evening entered a room lit only by candles. Three sturdy pillar candles in the entryway fireplace cast a dim light on the small huddle of guests. The rooms beyond were unlit.

The gloom was not the result of a power failure. Instead, it was the first stage of a journey back in time to a world illuminated by flaming bundles of sticks, oil lamps and candles.

That evolution in the way humans light their environment not only traces technical progress but also the sharp climate changes since the 19th century, according to Stephen Conant a co-founder of the Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust, which owns the house.

Conant guided the evening tour of the darkened Spalding House on Pawtucket Street, walking visitors through the building and through the history of lighting across the centuries.

The trust inherited a large collection of lighting devices when the organization purchased the building from the Daughters of the American Revolution in the 1990s.

The Spalding House dates to 1760 when it served as an inn. In 1790, it passed into the hands of the Spalding family and, then, in 1906 to the DAR.

In addition to showcasing the lighting collection in the house, Conant’s purpose was to map the effects of the changes in lighting to wildlife issues and depletion of fossil fuel.

“The history of lighting is all about energy,” Conant said.

He made the point, too, that “the arc of our experience is from the personal to the remote.” At one time, people had to leave their homes to get the fuel and supplies for lighting and heating. “Now we just flip a switch.”

From early human history to the 1780s, lighting remained static. In 1780, a new kind of oil lamp appeared in Paris. The Argand lamp, named for its inventor Aimé Argand, burned brighter and more completely than any previous oil lamp. The lamp used whale oil, seal oil, olive oil and other vegetable oils.

Thomas Jefferson brought the Argand lamp to Monticello, and then it was adopted initially by the wealthy. The lighting and fuel needs of the Industrial Revolution put tremendous pressure on the world’s whale populations that continued well into the 20th century.

In 1805, the mills of Manchester, England became the first to pipe coal gas (also called manufactured gas) into these buildings. It was the first time in human history that energy was piped into buildings.

Forms of fuel changed over time. Kerosene, a petroleum derivative, competed with whale oil beginning about 1850. Turpentine became another source of energy as did something called “burning fluid.” The latter source was extremely volatile and described in one 19th century journal as “suicidal”.

Conant showed visitors examples of many types of lamps, including the incandescent Welsbach mantle lantern that uses kerosene and burns with a white light similar to an LED light bulb. The lamp’s mantle, a piece of cloth covering, is dipped in radioactive thorium. Some camping lanterns today still use thorium.

Edison ensured that “eventually electricity won out,” Conant said. The nation’s most famous inventor patented the incandescent bulb in 1880.

Testing the knowledge of the visitors, Conant asked what the sources of electricity are in Lowell today. The answer is natural gas, nuclear, coal and renewables. The exact mix of fuels varies from minute-to-minute as he demonstrated by referring to the ISO New England web site ( https://www.iso-ne.com ) which records those fluctuations.