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A Brief History of Luminance

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Sometimes we share our favorite, tantalizing new lighting concepts. But strip away the curvy shades, the metallic rods—the packaging. What's left? The shine itself. Dwell reflects on the long, bright history of light, and where it's headed.


For its "Bright Ideas" issue, Dwell spans our efforts to push back the night, from Egyptian beeswax candles of 5,000 years ago, to radioactive thorium-burning gas lamps, to clean (and pricy) OLEDs still on the verge of ubiquity. And go ahead, laugh all you want at the humble candle—perhaps loved only by luddites and brownout victims—but "candlepower" is still the unit of choice for many measures of brightness.


We've stopped—to the chagrin of purists and pyromaniacs—burning things to light our rooms, for the most part, with the explosion of indoor electrical lighting in the 1880s. But scientists, architects, and designers still grapple with the balancing act between luminance, cost, and efficiency (Dwell points out that artists frequently opt out of the debate, preferring steady natural light from the direction of the earth's nearest pole). The still-debated American Clean Energy and Security Act could mandate a bulb efficiency of 80 lumens per watt (a lumen being the measure of light perceived by the human eye, as opposed to total power—always good to keep your terms straight!). If this passes, prepare for a swift new wave in lighting tech, from store shelves to your office, as the common incandescent bulb won't come anywhere near a passing efficiency grade.

But some would like to see the spotlight taken off the quest for the brightest bulb, and an emphasis placed on wasting less light, not generating more. Dwell highlights Bob Parks, director of the International Dark-Sky Association, who thinks light has managed to creep into places it doesn't belong—particularly the evening. "The point of effective lighting," Parks argues, "is to use only the light you need, when you need it and to shield it so the light doesn't go where it's not wanted."

The question of where light belongs will only become weightier with the spread of OLED technology, which holds the potential for glowing furniture, clothing, paper—even buildings themselves, with the application of a sprayable emissive layer. When lights aren't something we switch on, but something we live in, perhaps we'll need to make sure we look back past the skepticism of figures like Park, and to the pure functionality of the simple wick.


Dwell's "Bright Ideas" issue is on newsstands now.