Being able to walk into a room and flick a switch for a burst of instant light is something most of us take for granted nowadays. Electric lighting made itself a part of life on a large scale around 100 years ago but this is a relatively modern change given that for many centuries before candles remained the main source of lighting.
In this article, we will explore more about how we made the shift from flickering flame to incandescent electric light and why both mean to serve a similar purpose when we really break it down.
Both the traditional candle and the electric lightbulb are a man-made means of creating light and continue to be used the world over. While the electric lightbulb has overtaken candlelight, there is still a role for candles in even the most modern of homes.
How is a Candle different from a Light Bulb?
The candle and the light bulb share the ability to illuminate the area around them but they work in very different ways.
The humble candle came first, with evidence that they have been offering light and being used in celebration for over 5000 years and continue to be part of life today. The candle has also evolved from historical materials such as animal fat before alternatives such as beeswax, paraffin, and soy became more prolific.
All candles will have a wick of some sort, a piece of material or wood that runs through the wax or fat. This is lit and then melts the wax into oil which is the energy source to keep the candle lit and generating heat. The act of burning fuel will always have some by-products in the form of soot or tiny micro-particles.
A light bulb is similar in the sense it also creates light but that is where the similarities end really. The electric light bulb does away with the need for wax or fat as a fuel source instead it is fed directly from the mains electricity. While it is easy to see that the flickering flame of a candle produces a glow it can be a bit harder to discern exactly how an electric lightbulb glows.
If you look closely at an electric lightbulb when it is turned off you will see a small piece of metal wire that sits between two points. This metal is a very thin filament of hard-to-melt metal, usually tungsten, that begins to heat up and glow when electricity is passed through it. The glass bulb around it looks clear but actually contains an inert gas. The gas doesn’t participate in the reaction to create light but it has an important job in preventing moisture from being present which would ultimately make the thin wire element oxidize and disintegrate.
While the candle is a chemical reaction at heart. A candle burns and the flame draws on the fuel and oxygen in the environment. The electric lightbulb draws on the heating effect of electrical current to convert electricity first into heat and then that emits the light we use to illuminate our homes.
When did Light Bulbs replace Candles?
The candle offered the first real means of illumination for early civilizations over 5000 years ago. As such the light bulb is a fairly recent change by that measure.
Before we discuss when the move to the electric lightbulb occurred, there was a step before that definitely contributed to the design and development of the electric light bulb and that is the gas lamp.
In the late 18th Century, William Murdoch, a Scottish inventor, found himself fed up with dripping candle wax and wanted a more convenient lighting solution for his home. He figured out a way to pipe coal gas around his home which was gathered in glass lamps. Once the coal gas was ignited and exposed to oxygen a reaction occurred that resulted in light. The major downside of this easy means of continual light was the by-products, unpleasant fumes, smoke, blackened walls, and not to mention the risk of the odd explosion!
Gas lighting never the less became desirable and was increasingly popular with middle and upper-class homes well into the 19th Century. Meanwhile, at the same time, inventors began to pursue the early variations of what would become the electric lightbulb today.
It was the prolific inventor Thomas Edison who honed the design enough to the point that he was able to produce a commercially viable lightbulb in the 1870s.
It would be well into the 1930s however before homes in the developed world began to routinely be connected to national power grids in order to access the electricity required to power Edison’s revolutionary light bulb.
What is a Candlelight Bulb?
A candlelight bulb is a term coined for a type of electric bulb with a tapered glass design intended to mirror the shape of a candle flame. It is only the bulb shape that resembles a candle flame the internal workings remain the same as any other electric light bulb. The tapered shape does give the illusion though that the light itself is flame shaped. Often they are designed to give off a softer light in order to exude an ambiance and help set the tone.
The candlelight bulb was designed purely for aesthetic reasons. Its decorative design compliments more unusual light fittings such as chandeliers or any open-style fittings where the bulb is very clearly visible and not behind a lampshade or casing.
Why are Light Bulbs better than Candles?
While candles did hold their own for thousands of years, they have effectively been replaced by electric lighting in the majority of the developed world when it comes to lighting our homes, streets, and offices.
This happened as ultimately people perceived the electric lightbulb as the better choice. We have outlined the main reasons for this below.
- Reliable continuous light
Prior to electric lighting, life would be punctuated by replacing candles that had burned out or been accidentally extinguished by a gust of wind. While the flickering of a candle flame can create a romantic mood, the flickering light can actually impair illumination making fine work difficult.
Most rooms required multiple candles to provide sufficient light on a dark night. Having that many exposed flames ultimately increased the fire risk. Add the complication of nodding off on an evening and the potential for a candle to fall and you can see why most people embraced the less volatile electric lightbulb.
- Air quality
Electric lighting does not create any fumes or soot as a by-product of burning. Of course, burning the occasional candle won’t stain your home with soot but if you relied on it as your daily lighting source this soon mounts up. Most people were glad to cut down on their cleaning with the installation of electric lighting.
Do Candles save energy?
It can be difficult to directly compare the energy impact of candles versus lightbulbs. Of course, the lightbulb requires electricity to work, this comes from the electricity grid which is fed by a number of sources from nuclear power plants to wind farms. A candle can be made from natural sources which can make them appear to have less of an environmental impact but consideration needs to be given to other factors such as manufacturing energy, transport emissions, and packaging impacts.
If you are looking to directly reduce your home’s personal energy draw, then regular use of candles for lighting will reduce your electricity costs however with the efficiency of modern lightbulbs you really would need to commit to drastically reducing your electric lighting in favor of candles for this to be meaningful.
How bright is Candlelight?
Brightness is the word used to describe the amount of light that a light source emits. Technically speaking it is a measure of the light source’s luminous flux and it is measured in Lumens.
Using this measurement, a standard candle will produce in the region of 12 lumens. This can vary slightly, but only to a small extent, in relation to specific wax, wick quality, and burning temperature.
In order to put the 12 lumens attributed to candlelight into context a standard electric lightbulb will emit somewhere in the region of 1500-1700 lumen!
In summary, I think most of us would be pretty lost without the electric lightbulb. The ease of flicking a switch to provide, reliable, steady, and clean light to our homes and workplaces just makes life that bit easier.
Of course, the candle has found a new reason to remain in our lives. The cozy glow from a flickering flame cannot be truly replicated in electric lighting and of course, we still fall back on the old faithful candle when we find ourselves in a power outage! This means the candle will likely always find a place even in the most modern of homes.