The History of Artificial Lighting In The Home
In the history of artificial lighting, Ami Argand's development of the central draft burner had as much impact in the late 18th century as did Thomas Alva Edison's harnessing of electricity did in the late 19th century. His burner creation affected lighting devices in the first half of the nineteenth century. In the second half of the century, this new burner was used with both lighting and heating devices. In fact, the benefit of his design can still be observed in the circular burners of contemporary gas cooking stoves.
Ami Argand, was a Swiss inventor and philosopher. He developed and introduced an improved lamp burner that revolutionized interior lighting. He developed a glass chimneyed central draft burner that produced light equal to that of six to eight candles. It also improved oxygenation at the burner, reduced consumption of oil, and practically eliminated the need for snuffing (snipping away partially burned wicks to reduce flickering).*
Argand's new burner not only led to the development of new lamp forms but also eventually affected both how people used their living spaces and how they arranged their furniture in those spaces.
Though gas lighting was used early in large interior spaces, smaller domestic spaces benefited dramatically from the development of the central draft lamps. Prior to Argand's development, lighting relied on hand-made candles and many types of opened oil containers to which cotton or rush wicks were inserted. Tallow, alcohol, and any available oli (fish, seal, whale and vegetable) provided the fuels. Although Argand's lamps required high grade vegetable or whale oil and was therefore costly to use, it remained popular among the well-to-do during the first quarter of the 19th century. By 1830, more and varied lamps became available to those of the more common classes.
Expensive lamps, typically made of heavy metal, continued to be manufactured. A popular variety was the freestanding table lamps that were newly introduced at this time. There were Solara lamps, thus named because their light seemed to be as bright as the sun; solara being the Latin name for sun. Again, originating from Latin terms, were the Astrala lamps; meaning stars. Sinumbras drew their name from sine umbra, or without shadow, since the large diameter reservoirs produced a bright light with fewer shadows than those casted by earlier lamps.
Artificial lighting also affected room use and the placement of furniture. With the introduction of the sinumbra lamp in the 1810's and 1820's, tables were placed in the center of front parlors instead of removing them when not in use to the outer perimeters of the room. A sinumbra lamp placed on a center table provided enough light so that several people sitting around the table could benefit from the illumination. It is also suspected that it is around this time that the family's main eating table evolved into a round-shaped design for this very same reason. Prior, the refectory, or rectangle-shaped table, was the common shape.
In the late 1850's kerosene was introduced as a more viable and economical fuel alternative. However, the sinumbra, solar and astral lamps did not go by the wayside. Many were retrofitted to accommodate the change in fuel.
Argand's contribution to artificial lighting was vital to many aspects of how people used and design the interiors of their homes. Impressively, his impact is still as relevant today.
*The Central Draft Burner: Ami Argand's Contribution to the American Home by Mimi Sherman