Once too precious to use, now too cheap to notice – the significance of the lightbulb is profound. Imagine a hard week’s work gathering and chopping wood, ten hours a day for six days. Those 60 hours of work would produce light equivalent to one modern bulb shining for just 54 minutes. The invention of tallow candles made life a little easier. If you spent a whole week making them – unpleasant work – you would have enough to burn one for two hours and twenty minutes every evening for a year. Every subsequent technology was expensive, and labour-intensive. And none produced a strong, steady light. Then, as Tim Harford explains, Thomas Edison came along with the lightbulb and changed everything, turning our economy into one where we can work whenever we want to.

Producer: Ben Crighton
Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon

(Photo: Electric lightbulb, Credit: Science photo library)

Release date:

Available now

9 minutes

Last on

Tue 27 Dec 2016 23:50 GMT
BBC World Service Americas and the Caribbean

Sources and related links

William D. Nordhaus - "Do real-output and real-wage measures capture reality? The history of lighting suggests not." The economics of new goods (University of Chicago Press 1996. 27-70)

For other accounts of Nordhaus’s calculations see Tim Harford -The Logic of Life (London: Little Brown 2008), Steven Johnson - How We Got To Now (New York: Riverhead 2014) and David Kestenbaum - “The History of Light, in 6 Minutes and 47 Seconds” NPR: All Things Considered May 2 2014

Marshall B. Davidson -  “Early American Lighting”  The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Summer 1944), pp. 30-40

Steven Johnson - How We Got To Now p165 and Marshall B Davidson ibid

Jane Brox - Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light London (Souvenir Press 2011)

Robert J. Gordon - The Rise and Fall of American Growth (Chapter 4)