Fire, Oil Lamp, Candle, Wicks, Gas Lights, Incandescence, Incandescent Light Bulb, Fluorescence and Compact Fluorescent Lamp

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 20th, 2013

Technology 101

(Originally published March 28th, 2012)

A Lit Match heats the Fuel Absorbed into a Wick, Vaporizes it, Mixes it with Oxygen and Ignites It

Fire changed the world.  From when Homo erectus first captured it.  Around 600,000 BC.  In China.  They saw it.  Maybe following a lightning strike.  Seeing it around volcanic activity.  Perhaps a burning natural gas vent.  Whatever.  They saw fire.  Approached it.  And learned not to fear it.  How to add fuel to it.  To transfer it to another fuel source.  To carry it.  They couldn’t create fire.  But they could manage it.  And use it.  It was warm.  And bright.  So they brought it indoors.  To light up their caves.  Scare the predators out.  To use it to heat.  And to cook.  Taking a giant leap forward for mankind.

When man moved into man-made dwellings they brought fire with them.  At first a one-room structure with a fire in the center of it.  And a hole in the roof above it.  Where everyone gathered around to eat.  Stay warm.  Sleep.  Even to make babies.  As there wasn’t a lot of modesty back then.  Not that anyone complained much.  What was a little romance next to you when you were living in a room full of smoke, soot and ash?  Fireplaces and chimneys changed all that.  Back to back fireplaces could share a chimney.  Providing more heat and light.  Less smoke and ash.  And a little privacy.  Where the family could be in one room eating, staying warm, reading, playing games and sleeping.  While the grownups could make babies in the other room.

As we advanced so did our literacy.  After a hard day’s work we went inside.  After the sun set.  To read.  Write letters.  Do some paperwork for the business.  Write an opera.  Whatever.  Even during the summer time.  When it was warm.  And we didn’t have a large fire burning in the fireplace.  But we could still see to read and write.  Thanks to candles.  And oil lamps.  One using a liquid fuel.  One using a solid fuel.  But they both operate basically the same.  The wick draws liquid (or liquefied) fuel via capillary action.  Where a porous substance placed into contact with a liquid will absorb that liquid.  Like a paper towel or a sponge.  When you place a lit match into contact with the wick it heats the fuel absorbed into the wick and vaporizes it.  Mixing it with the oxygen in the air.  And ignites it.  Creating a flame.  The candle works the same way only starting with a solid fuel.  The match melts the top of this fuel and liquefies it.  Then it works the same way as an oil lamp.  With the heat of the flame melting the solid fuel to continue the process.

Placing a Mantle over a Flame created Light through Incandescence (when a Heated Object emits Visible Light)

Two popular oils were olive oil and whale oil.  Beeswax and tallow were common solid fuels.  Candles set the standard for noting lighting intensity.  One candle flame produced one candlepower.  Or ‘candela’ as we refer to it now.   (Which equals about 13 lumens – the amount of light emitted by a source).  If you placed multiple candles into a candelabrum you could increase the lighting intensity.  Three candles gave you 3 candela of light to read or write by.  A chandelier with numerous candles suspended from the ceiling could illuminate a room.  This artificial light shortened the nights.  And increased the working day.  In the 19th century John D. Rockefeller gave the world a new fuel for their oil lamps.  Kerosene.  Refined from petroleum oil.  And saved the whales.  By providing a more plentiful fuel.  At cheaper prices.

By shortening the nights we also made our streets safer.  Some cities passed laws for people living on streets to hang a lamp or two outside.  To light up the street.  Which did indeed help make the streets brighter.  And safer.  To improve on this street lighting idea required a new fuel.  Something in a gas form.  Something that you could pump into a piping system and route to the new street lamps.  A gas kept under a slight pressure so that it would flow up the lamp post.  Where you opened the gas spigot at night.  And lit the gas.  And the lamp glowed until you turned off the gas spigot in the morning.  Another advantage of gas lighting was it didn’t need wicks.  Just a nozzle for the gas to come out of where you could light it.  So there was no need to refuel or to replace the wicks.  Thus allowing them to stay lit for long periods with minimum maintenance.  We later put a mantle over the flame.  And used the flame to heat the mantle which then glowed bright white.  A mantle is like a little bag that fits over the flame made out of a heat resistant fabric.  Infused into the fabric are things that glow white when heated.  Rare-earth metallic salts.  Which change into solid oxides when heated to incandescence (when a heated object emits visible light).

One of the first gases we used was coal-gas.  Discovered in coal mines.  And then produced outside of a coal mine from mined coal.  It worked great.  But when it burned it emitted carbon.  Like all these open flames did.  Which is a bit of a drawback for indoor use.  Filling your house up with smoke.  And soot.  Not to mention that other thing.  Filling up your house with open flames.  Which can be very dangerous indoors.  So we enclosed some of these flames.  Placing them in a glass chimney.  Or glass boxes.  As in street lighting.  Enclosing the flame completely (but with enough venting to sustain the flame) to prevent the rain form putting it out.  This glass, though, blackened from all that carbon and soot.  Adding additional maintenance.  But at least they were safer.   And less of a fire hazard.  Well, at least less of one type of fire hazard.  From the flame.  But there was another hazard.  We were piping gas everywhere.  Outside.  Into buildings.  Even into our homes.  Where it wasn’t uncommon for this gas to go boom.  Particularly dangerous were theatres.  Where they turned on the gas.  And then went to each gas nozzle with an open fire on a stick to light them.  And if they didn’t move quickly enough the theatre filled with a lot of gas.  An enclosed space filled with a lot of gas with someone walking around with an open fire on a stick.  Never a good thing.

Fluorescent Lighting is the Lighting of Choice in Commercial, Professional and Institutional Buildings

Thomas Edison fixed all of these problems.  By finding another way to produce incandescence. By running an electrical current through a filament inside a sealed bulb.  The current heated the filament to incandescence.  Creating a lot of heat.  And some visible light.  First filaments were carbon based.  Then tungsten became the filament of choice.  Because they lasted longer.  At first the bulbs contained a vacuum.  But they found later that a noble gas prevented the blackening of the bulb.  The incandescent light bulb ended the era of gas lighting.  For it was safer.  Required less maintenance.  And was much easier to operate.  All you had to do was flick a switch.  As amazing as the incandescent light bulb was it had one big drawback.  Especially when we use a lot of them indoors.  That heat.  As the filament produced far more heat than light.  Which made hot buildings hotter.  And made air conditioners work harder getting that heat out of the building.  Enter the fluorescent lamp.

If phosphor absorbs invisible short-wave ultraviolet radiation it will fluoresce.  And emit long-wave visible light.  But not through incandescence.  But by luminescence.  Instead of using heat to produce light this process uses cooler electromagnetic radiation.  Which forms the basis of the fluorescent lamp.  A gas-discharge lamp.  The most common being the 4-foot tube you see in office buildings.  This tube has an electrode at each end.  Contains a noble gas (outer shell of valence electrons are full and not chemically reactive or electrically conductive) at a low pressure.  And a little bit of mercury.  When we turn on the lamp we create an electric field between the electrodes.  As it grows in intensity it eventually pulls electrons out of their valence shell ionizing the gas into an electrically conductive plasma.  This creates an arc between the electrodes.  This charged plasma field excites the mercury.  Which produces the invisible short-wave ultraviolet radiation that the phosphor absorbs.  Causing fluorescence.

One candle produces about 13 lumens of light.  Barely enough to read and write by.  Whereas a 100W incandescent light bulb produces about 1,600 lumens.  The equivalent of 123 candles.  In other words, one incandescent lamp produces the same amount of light as a 123-candle chandelier.  Without the smoke, soot or fire hazard.  And the compact fluorescent lamp improves on this.  For a 26W compact fluorescent lamp can produce the lumen output of a 100W incandescent light bulb.  A one-to-one tradeoff on lighting output.  At a quarter of the power consumption.  And producing less heat due to creating light from fluorescence instead of incandescence.  Making fluorescent lighting the lighting of choice in commercial, professional and institutional buildings.  And any other air conditioned space with large lighting loads.


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