Looking at a timeline of technology, we could start with the bed. In South Africa, researchers found 200,000 year old grass bedding (evidence) sitting on an ash base that would have repelled insects. The health benefits from having a clean and comfy place to sleep and work could have been considerable.
This timeline of technology speeds us through some initial millennia and then slightly slows with our recent inventions:
After the bed, there were countless crucial technology threads we could follow. But let’s take a look at light.
In one of his farm journals, Thomas Jefferson documented the importance of light.
You can see below how the length of the workday varied with the seasons. During July, more daylight meant they could increase their spinning:
We depended on natural light because artificial illumination was too expensive. The president of Harvard noted in a 1743 diary entry that it took his household two days to make 78 pounds of tallow candles. Six months later he wrote, “Candles all gone.” Similarly, George Washington calculated that it cost him £8 a year (more than $1,000 today) to burn a spermaceti candle for five hours a night.
Like candles, nineteenth century sperm oil, gas, and kerosene lamps were expensive. In 1800, a typical middle class urban household spent approximately 4% of its income on the oil, lamps, matches and candles that illuminated their lives. Building a house, they knew their windows’ location could optimize the light. Like Jefferson’s spinners, darkness constrained when they could work and read.
Today we spend much less for so much more. Nobel laureate Wlliam Nordhaus estimated that we use less than 1% of our income for approximately 100 times as much artificial illumination. It is mind boggling to think that the labor that had created close to one hour of quality light several centuries ago now can illuminate us for 52 years.
You can see (below) the lighting price-plunge during the middle of the 19th century:
And that descent meant fewer labor hours bought more and more illumination:
Our Bottom Line: Light Inventions
Our timeline of technology is rather like a fractal mathematician’s description of the British coastline. While from afar, we see an even line, looking more closely we start to see countless inlets. Rather than a measurable perimeter, the length of the coastline becomes infinite.
So too with incremental character of our inventiveness.
Dr. Nordhaus summarized the history of light innovation up to the 1980s:
You can see that lighting history includes so many inventions that made a difference. Indeed, whether looking back at light or ahead at AI, we can always keep in mind that several letters or words refer to so much more.
My sources and more: As usually happens, I was inspired by Our World In Data. Yesterday, they shared their overhaul of the history of technology. With a timeline that is chock full of inventions, their approach provides a history of change. It also was a springboard that took me to a Science Daily paper on the first beds and this paper on lightng history. And also, I returned to our own past posts on lighting history where I cited the Nordhaus paper and this Tim Harford podcast.
Please note that today I’ve quoted from past econlife posts.
Great post. One huge miss on technological innovations is the invention of plastics with the creation of Bakelite in 1907 by Leo Hendrik Bakeland.