From Steampunk and Edison bulbs to hot new restaurants and trendy stores making chandeliers out of “barn door trolleys” (those are actually hay bale trolleys, for those who appreciate authenticity), it is hard to miss the rising popularity of Industrial Lighting. So, what does “Industrial Lighting” mean from a lighting historian’s point of view?
While 19th-century advances in gas lighting brought very real change to the realm of home and family, perhaps the more significant impact was felt in the world of work. Before the introduction of artificial light, factory operation was limited to daylight hours and organized around proximity to large windows where workers could see what they were doing (like the one guy above). However, with the increased use of gas lighting in factories and workshops in the latter half of the 1800s, factories soon had no curfew and no square footage restraints – the Industrial Revolution was on, and industrial lighting was there to illuminate it.
The Two Flavors of Industrial Lighting: General and Task
The earliest industrial lighting aimed for general illumination for manufacturing and commercial spaces and maximum light at minimal cost, usually using simple iron or brass fixtures fitted with open-flame burners, sometimes combined with wire cages or glass shades to protect the flame (like our Rockwell). When electricity entered the picture in the 1880s, the forms stayed largely the same, just with bulbs instead of burners. These fixtures often had minimal ornamentation, multiple bulbs or burners and spreading arms (like our Abelard or Kilpatrick), and sometimes a reflecting device using segmented mirrors to direct more light downward (like our Menlo). The key characteristic of general industrial task lighting is efficient and straightforward use of materials and technology and shades that spread light over a wide area.
However, electricity had two advantages over gas. First, electrical lamps could be turned upside down for direct illumination – try that with a gas flame – and second, power could be delivered much more easily through flexible wires rather than hard-plumbed pipes. The result was task lighting mounted near or directly on shop tables and machinery to light the work at hand (cord fixtures like our like our McCoy and Wiley, and swinging brackets like our Bend or Fords Mill). The key characteristic of industrial task lighting is flexibility/adjustability to get light where it is needed and shades that focus the light on a specific area.
Industrial Lighting Trends
Over time, industrial lighting advanced alongside technology, and each period had its own look and feel – arc lights in the 1880s and 1890s, high-wattage Mazda C nitrogen-bulb fixtures in the 1910s (like our Hood), schoolhouse-type pendants in the 1920s (like our Baldwin or Imperial), semi-indirect Streamline bowls in the 1930s (like our Tessa). RLM-type metal shades with colored enamel finishes were popular for the entire century (like our Warehouse Lights or New Enamel Shades), and fluorescent lighting rose to prominence after its introduction in 1939.
Industrial Lighting Today
Of course, history is just part of the story. Today, “industrial lighting” has taken on a more eclectic life and meaning that has more to do with character and romance than grease and sawdust. Early unadorned, functional fixtures remind us of how beauty can be found in simple, honest design. Classic hard-working materials like brass, iron and glass speak of durability, craft and a job done well. Wire guards and cloth cords renew familiar memories. And at a time when so much technology is virtually invisible or “magic” in how it works, it is both refreshing and satisfying to turn on sockets with turnkeys that click, see bulbs that emit light from glowing incandescent filaments, and choose shades that are shaped, cut, colored and fitted by hand to give another century of dependable service.
What does “industrial lighting” mean to you?
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