Episode 534: The History Of Light

Our own Jacob Goldstein made this candle out of animal fat. Jacob Goldstein/NPR hide caption

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Jacob Goldstein/NPR

Note: This episode originally aired in April, 2014.

For thousands of years, getting light was a huge hassle. You had to make candles from scratch. This is not as romantic as it sounds. You had to get a cow, raise the cow, have food to feed the cow, kill the cow, get the fat out of the cow, cook the fat, dip wicks into the fat. All that—for not very much light. Now, if we want to light a whole room, we just flip a switch.

The history of light explains why the world today is the way it is. It explains why we aren't all subsistence farmers, and why we can afford to have artists and massage therapists and plumbers. (And, yes, people who do radio stories about the history of light.) The history of light is the history of economic growth—of things getting faster, cheaper, and more efficient.

On today's show: How we got from dim little candles made out of cow fat, to as much light as we want at the flick of a switch.

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