The Cost Of Light Through The Ages

Tyler Durden's picture

"Could all historians (and economists) please just turn their attention away for a short moment?! " asks Der Spiegel's Guido Mingels, as he reflects on the evolution in the costs of making light work through the ages (spoiler alert - it appears deflation is a 'good' thing).

Let's talk straight: All man had achieved before 1800 isn't really worth mentioning. Easy peasy stuff. For thousands of years nothing really happened.

These days, you visit a museum and are expected to marvel at an ancient plow or a knight's armor, when back then they didn't even have electric lighting. No switch, anywhere!

The history of artificial lighting accompanies and enlightens the Anthropocene, as some call the times from the year 1800 onwards, when mankind started showing off what its real capabilities were. Without light in the coal pits and in the factories, which from then on could be lit at all times, the industrial revolution would have had to have been postponed.

The costs for the production of light, one of the most important enablers of progress, have dropped in a way that is hardly imaginable. The environmental economists Roger Fouquet and Peter Pearson have retraced this development for England.

Infographic: The Cost of Light Through the Ages | Statista

You will find more statistics at Statista

One hour of light (referred to as the quantity of light shed by a 100 watt bulb in one hour) cost 3200 times as much in 1800 in England than it does today, amounting to 130 euros back then (or a little more than 150 dollars).

In 1900, it still cost 4 euros (close to 5 dollars).

In the year 2000, we arrived at a cost of 4 euro cents (5 U.S. cents).

You can also put this into relation with the amount of time that an average worker needed to labor during different ages in order to earn enough for the 100 watt bulb to glow for an hour - just like the economist William Nordhaus has done in one of his classic essays.

The people of Babylon, in 1750 B.C., who used sesame oil to light the lamps, had to work for 400 hours to produce the said amount of light.

Around 1800, using talcum candles, 50 hours needed to be invested.

Using a gas lamp in the late 19th century, 3 hours were due.

Using an energy saving bulb today, you will have to work for the blink of an eye - a second.

*  *  *

The chart and text were first published by German journalist and author Guido Mingels. It is available as a book here. As always, our charts are free to use and share, just quote DER SPIEGEL/Statista as the source and include a backlink to the graphic's URL (this page).

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SilverRhino's picture

And people now use that light to watch cat videos and flame each other on the internets.   

Zero Point's picture

How long will I have to work for 3 minutes with a sexbot?

EuroZone's picture

I'm making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life. This is what I do...

Zero Point's picture

Do you need a sexbot, or have you followed the sexual advice of every human that encounters you, and gone and fucked yourself?

homme's picture

For an eternity, man. Those bots will be waiting for you in your afterlife; mad and wearing strap-ons

HarryKallahan's picture


Are you purchasing or renting your sexbot?



tmosley's picture

0 seconds.

The sexbot does all the work for you. Try not to get too fat.

The central planners's picture

Even worst we use that light to create imaginary money.

Mr 9x19's picture

this chart means nothing. utterly.


still half the planet do not have grid.

they still work hard and surpassed BC techies...


it is not because it is cheap that :

1) everybody have it

2) everybody need it

3) everybody will keep it


personally if i could swap my life with a no grid lifestyle on a beach with local sexy girls and good natural food and joy of life without all this fucking tourism virus invasion, i would gladly give my keyboard.

problem is, you're quiet and calm nowhere on this fucking planet as long you have oil to let the mass move as they want. this is an aberration, people should not be able to go everywhere, this is the very 1st problem of humanity,  hypermobility make them do no give a fuck about local fauna, onc they  fucked the place, they move.


if people on nuke plants had to live on spot i garantee you there would not have been a single accident.

TeraByte's picture

Cat videos make me some sense compared with the energy gone wasted to fighting people you never met.


Dragon HAwk's picture

Candles during Colonial America days were extremely valuable and not burned idly. They disappeared way to quickly for common use.

Dindu Nuffins's picture

Beeswax candles aren't that hard to make, and are a byproduct of honey production. Tallow candles are even easier, since it's just lard from slaughtered animals. Once again, an "economist" tries to appear smart and make a feel good point.

Reminds me of a recent "Chinese % of Global GDP throughout history" graph that was popular some time ago that was meant to make the point that China is "returning" to its rightful place... one problem, the GDP graph blatantly forgot little bumps like the Tianping Revolt and the Mongol and Qing Conquests, in which hundreds of millions died, and the graph was clearly just bullshit conjured by an economist with no familiarity with Chinese history.

sinbad2's picture

Yes many died in the wars, but wars are good for business. Why do you think the US is always at war, for entertainment?

Itinerant's picture

Although the general point is obvious, I am wary of the historical numbers of man hours calculated.

I Write Code's picture

>Let's talk straight: All man had achieved before 1800 isn't really worth mentioning.

That's like saying that until Justin Beiber, music wasn't worth listening to.

>Using an energy saving bulb today, you will have to work for the blink of an eye - a second.

To get 800 lumen-hours still requires eleven watt-hours, so at twelve cents per kilowatt hour, ... about a tenth of a cent?  So at $36/hour that's a penny a second ... so a tenth of a second?  OK, point made.  But even the hot old 100 watt bulb only cost a penny and that's hundred year old news.  Film at eleven?

Debugas's picture

the true indicator of progress is energy produced per capita per time unit

as can be seen the population started growing rapidly with the advent of oil ( coal alone could not lift us ) and today we are still the children of the oil and gas age


If we want to expand and continue to grow we desperately need more energy dence sources like nuclear fusion but we still cannot make it

Dennisen's picture

Figured it was about the same over the last 200 or so years since the Illuminati has been around...

Deres's picture

It is a very important historical data. In fact, the point where it was possible to work at night, ie the cost of one hour light was under one hour of work, was a great achievement in productivity.

Deres's picture

It is a very important historical data. In fact, the point where it was possible to work at night, ie the cost of one hour light was under one hour of work, was a great achievement in productivity.

BigCumulusClouds's picture

This article nicely demonstrates, that despite all the major advancements in productivity, prices still rise. Of course the price increases are a tax that every person who does businesses in dollars must pay, by way of inflation, to the US government and to the Federal Reserve member banks who buy treasuries or who make loans. Prior to 1913 there was no such tax and the American citizen was free.

DEMIZEN's picture

power generation and distribution is heavily regulated with ridiculous price discrimation schemes. same goes for water.  you have to laugh when al gore tells you to save energy while he burns megawats a month.


I replaced all bulbs and monitors with leds. cooking plates with induction type etc.. prices remain the same.

Faeriedust's picture

Yes, for small household users, 50% of the bill comes in the fixed chunk for billing and delivery, and the half of you bill that supposedly is dependent on how much you use is charged at a rate twice as high as those who use ungodly amounts pay.  So you could use twice as much as you use, being careful and conservation minded, and pay exactly the same price.

OhNo's picture

Yeah so why does my power keep going up numb nuts? you enviro tards

Solio's picture

Consumers have to pay for complex infrastructure maintenance (npp's Wigner Effect degradation, etc.), process water pollution, bailouts.

MaxThrust's picture

The metric is incorrect. If someone can see using a candle and get done what they want to do then this light is just as useful as that coming from a 100watt bulb.

Deep_Out-of-the-Money's picture

Precisely. It is a little like HDTV. Did we really enjoy the old SD any less, particularly since we didn't know what we were missing?

moorewasthebestbond's picture

Tom Brady (the quarterback dude with the monster 220,000 sq ft house in California) reminds you common folks to unplug your phone charger and turn off the lights when not in use.


Seriously folks... on a more practical note... for light insurance... nothing beats a 55 gallon drum of kerosene and an armful of oil lamps.

Able Ape's picture

The disadvantage of a 220,000 sq ft house is that your wife could be fucking everyone in the city and you'd never know it...Say Tom, it's 11PM do you know where your wife is?  Saying she's home ain't gonna cut it...

DaBard51's picture

"Talcum" candles?  Tallow candles, what is meant (4th last paragraph).  Or wax.

Proofreader, on your smartphone you must be... get to work.



When nine hundred years old you become, look this good you will not.

Byte Me's picture

The people of Babylon, in 1750 B.C., who used sesame oil to light the lamps, had to work for 400 hours to produce the said amount of light.

Around 1800, using talcum candles, 50 hours needed to be invested.

WTF is a 'talcum candle'?

TALLOW - well, ok. But were the <LGBTQQbotty> community rewriting xistory (sicc) at the conclusion of the 18th century?

I think NOT!

But this tosser is trying a psyop imho..

Babylonians using "sesame street oil" at yuuuuuge per capita cost  -- give us all a fucking break..

The wonderful Babylonians (a civilizational 'high point' for their time - no question) just could not have known about rendered animal (or slave) fat - now could they?


(PS - sesame oil is better used in salads..)

Faeriedust's picture

They used sesame oil because it gave a nicer, cleaner light than tallow, and was cheaper.  Tallow is smoky and nasty.  And it requires a high proportion of cattle production vis-a-vis the human population, which Babylon didn't have.  Most cattle in Babylon were work-oxen, and weren't slaughtered for eating or other products.

And no, it didn't take 400 hours of work for one hour of light.  

goldinpenguin's picture

the economics of LED lighting is overwhelming, 80%energy savings vs incandescent, 20% savings vs fluorescent plus longer life and better light quality

Faeriedust's picture

But at 20X the capital cost of investment.  For many peope who don't make $50/hr, paying $12-15 PER LIGHT BULB is ungodly steep, especially if they have to do it all at once, as with moving into a new home (I don't care if it's an apartment or a house, the previous owners ALWAYS leave at least one in three bulbs burned out or absent).  By comparison, an incandescent bulb costs -- or used to cost when you could get them -- $0.99 per two.  Likewise, LED and CF lightbulbs never last more than half as long as their package inserts claim they will.  And a "100 watt replacement" of either variety generally provides 85% of the light of the actual 100 watt bulb.

I'm not saying they aren't potentially an improvement.  They're certainly wonderful for small lights that run on batteries and for camping equipment where you don't expect REAL light, just something to keep you from stumbling over your feet in the dark.  But they certainly don't live up to their press.  And the bit about only being 85% percent as effective is a real problem, as they don't make bulbs in a power/size/brightness to compensate, i.e., a "120 watt replacement" that would actually be as bright as a real 100 watt bulb.  Either these things are being touted by druggies whose eyes are always so widely dilated that bright light is uncomfortable anyway, or Our Fearless Rulers are trying to force us all to become accustomed to making do with a dimmer, darker world.  That costs twice as much (20X price for 10X -- at most -- bulb life).

Facts and figures: in 1980, a real 100 watt incandescent bulb produced 1850 lumens of light.  In 1995, a typical "soft-white" incandescent bulb produced 1600 lumens.  In 2001, a typical CP bulb produced 1500 lumens.  In 2017, a "100-watt replacement" LED lightbulb produces between 1325 and 1600 lumens, with 1525 being typical.  Of course, if you hadn't lived for fifty years AND been obsessed with adequate light due to extreme SAD sensitivity, maybe you wouldn't have read all those package labels.

Stud Duck's picture

I like the author approach of measuring the cost of light. It mentioned seame oil nad talcum candles, but nothing mentioned about whale oil for light. That little exclusion of what was used make this one a little suspect, as almost everyone knows, whale fat oil was used almost exclusively in the 1800's. Kerosene came along and wiped the whale oil industry out in less than a decade.

It was a good measurement attempt!

Solio's picture

Do you want to see the light?

Turn off msm!

Cardinal Fang's picture

Let's do a chart about relative price of horsepower.

Let's do a chart of the relative price of a head of lettuce.


Stevious's picture

Stupid writer!  There is no such thing as talcum candles.  TALLOW Idiot!

I don't believe his numbers either.  500bc olive oil was burned.  Even the sesame seed oil for the ancient temples did not take 400 hours of work to create a pint of oil, unless you want to count the hours of sunshine for the seseme seeds to mature.

Terrible article, though interesting point.

FixItAgainTony's picture

Think about it as neighborhood light pollution "increasing the cost of darkness".

*Offer not valid in Detroit or North Korea.