Night Lights

We keep a soft light on overnight in the living room, having discovered years ago that avoiding four cats in the dark is a hit-or-miss proposition. This morning when I arose at 4 a.m. they were sleeping in their favored places, pillows mostly, and I thought of a show I watched last night on the History Channel called 101 Gadgets That Changed The World.

I came in on the program late but just in time for the Top Ten, and there at #10 was—the incandescent light bulb? These gadgets were chosen for their importance by a panel of experts, but seriously, how can air conditioning, computers, and the rotary dial phone possibly rank ahead of Edison’s work? Take that away and the night is lost. How many convenient technical concoctions would exist if their inventors had shelved their drawings at sundown? “Don’t forget to douse the torch when you come to bed.”

Other sources of illumination existed before the light bulb’s arrival (kerosene lamps come to mind) but were inherently dangerous (those lamps again), limited in scope, and short-lived. The light bulb was revolutionary—bright, long-lasting, and ultimately democratic. As they were developed and commercialized almost everyone could afford them. Days suddenly became longer, well before 24/7 entered our language.

Two consequences of this are that night owls flourished—if there was ever a reason to go to bed, light bulbs eliminated it—and a new type of photography evolved, its practitioners (see The Nocturnes and Troy Pavia’s Lost America for examples) seeking out incandescent landscapes well after dark.

It may be argued that there are too many places where the night never sleeps (Las Vegas is a blatant example), light pollution having become the bane of astronomers and anyone who relishes darkened, star-studded skies. Like another wonderful invention, the telephone, we’ve taken the light bulb well past its imagined function. But I’ll wager that, even on a hot night, people would choose light over air conditioning. You never know where the cats might be.

I’d like to remind you at four in the morning/My world is very still
The air is fresh under diamond skies/Makes me glad to be alive
—Bachman-Turner Overdrive


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