Lighting the Industrial Revolution

April 8, 2022 | Blog
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by Chris Evans (University of South Wales)


This blog is based on research made possible by the Carnevali Small Research Grant, funded by the Economic History Society.

Jean Jacques de Boisseau, “Evening in the Village,” 1800


‘The greatest purpose’ of whale oil, a Nantucket whaler told Thomas Jefferson in 1787, ‘is to give light. It enters more or less into every manufacture, but it is hardly rateable per centum in the capital of any.’

It was a striking observation.  Economic historians are used to dealing with the tangible – land, livestock, human bodies, tools, infrastructure, and so on – but light, that most intangible of things, has a vital part to play in economic life.  Manufacturing, as the Nantucket whaler insisted, could not occur without it.

What was the relationship between light, work, and economic change? Many economists identify a positive relationship.  Some, like Nobel Laureate William Nordhaus, even view the availability of artificial light as a proxy measure of development: modern societies are illuminated societies.  Historians have tended to agree, perceiving a correlation between modernity and the revolutionary lighting technologies of the nineteenth century based on  coal-gas and electricity.  Here, ‘light-rich’ societies emerged because of industrialization.

But, what if more abundant light was a pre-condition for industrialisation, rather than a consequence?  Logically,  historians who argue for an ‘Industrious Revolution’ in the century before full-blown industrialization — a phenomenon marked by more intense work patterns — imply that work must have been extended far beyond the hours of daylight.

Some activities, of course, have always been conducted in the hours of darkness.  Urban bakers in the early modern period, for example, worked through the night preparing bread for the morning.  Agricultural labourers, meanwhile, were accustomed to working far beyond dusk at harvest time, making full use of the light afforded by harvest moons.

Was there a general movement towards new working patterns, supported by better lighting, in eighteenth-century Britain?  That is an open question.  Much depends upon how much energy was available to generate light.  For the nineteenth century, that question is easily answered: Britain’s abundant coal reserves could be used to produce coal-gas and, at a later stage, electrical light.  In the eighteenth century, the situation is less clear.  More light required the consumption of more animal fats and vegetable oils.  But, how were those fats and oils obtained and brought to market?

Reconstructing the supply chains that furnished light in the eighteenth century is difficult; key actors need to be closely defined.  The ‘oilman’, for instance, clearly played an essential role in furnishing illuminants, yet the oilman was an ambiguous figure. The trade card of one eighteenth-century London oilman, recovered by the Dutch Prize Papers project, reveals some of the complexities. Thomas Edwards, ‘Oilman and Ships Chandler’ offered the public both ‘Burning Oils’ and ‘Sweet Oils’, as well as a selection of exotic groceries. How much of an oilman’s business was in illuminants and how much in comestibles?

The spaces from which flammable materials were drawn also need to be mapped out. While the coal-fuelled lighting technologies of the nineteenth century drew upon subterranean energy, we might hypothesise that early British industrialisation depended upon a more extensive range of materials.  Indeed, could it be that, when it came to lighting, the early stages of the Industrial Revolution rested upon the exploitation of frontier spaces, be they Arctic waters for whale oil, or the Russian steppes for tallow?  In other words, was British industrialisation an endogenous process, one driven from within (or below), or should we think again about the importance of imperial endeavour and international commerce in promoting economic change.

Generous support from the Economic History Society’s allows me to do some preliminary work on the market for illuminants in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  If some clarity can be brought to the question of what materials were brought to market and by whom, there is a further issue to be addressed – was more light really necessary?

Some processes could be performed in semi-darkness, while others needed strong but only intermittent  light.  Craft practitioners inform me that setting up a loom requires abundant light, but weaving requires rather less light.  Some processes, like the forging and rolling of metals, generated their own light.  Recent studies of the built environment, meanwhile, have cast doubt on many aspects of our traditional understanding.  For example, it appears that the advent of gas-lighting did not  affect the design of early factories or working patterns within them.

So, was British industrialisation flooded by light? Was it an Industrial Enlightenment —  or was it a far gloomier affair?


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