As we approach the longest night of the year, it’s good to remember that for most of human history, sunset marked the end of each day.
Working after dark required an artificial light source. Burning wood or animal fat was inefficient and unreliable. Candles made from beeswax and lamps lit by whale oil were smoky and expensive. Before 1850, most people just went to sleep when it got dark and rose again with the sun.
The Industrial Revolution helped transform this ancient pattern.
In the 1850s, a method was discovered to transform crude oil into kerosene. This clear liquid was comparatively cheap, easy to use, and threw off so much illumination that it was soon installed in lighthouses around the Great Lakes.
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About the same time, scientists found ways to extract natural gas from deep below ground. Gas could fuel everything from public streetlights to decorative lamps in Victorian parlors. They were bright but hot, and in 1904, the Wisconsin Capitol was destroyed in a fire caused by an untended gas lamp left burning too close to fresh varnish.
Finally, in the early 1880s, Thomas Edison invented a way to create light by sending electricity through a tiny wick inside a special glass bulb. Although Edison invented the device in New Jersey, the first home lit by electricity was in Appleton, where mill-owner Henry Rogers illuminated his house on Sept. 30, 1882.
You can still visit Hearthstone, the Appleton house museum where domestic electric light first became a reality.
—Wisconsin Historical Society