The Cost Of Light Through The Ages

"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.

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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).