The trajectory of such a simple a device as the nightlight is probably not outside the realm of educated guesses. First, there was fire. Then there were ways to control the fire. Then there were ways to harness electricity and make the technology available to the masses. But much can be said about us by how we lit our caves, huts and high-end condos.
Nightlights are functional, sure. They keep us from stubbing our toes and spilling midnight snacks. But, they also function to comfort us. “Input from parents, other people and our culture have further conditioned people to be afraid of the dark,” says Dr. Richard Shane, a night light aficionado and founder of the better-rest program Sleep Easily. “At bedtime, it’s good to find a way to feel safer and comfortable with yourself, and with the dark.“ And, you know, it’s also nice not to stub your toe on the way to the bathroom.
Fire, the First Nightlight
It all began with a spark. The ability to conjure fire from flint allowed our Paleolithic predecessors to keep nocturnal beasts from entering their caves and, as such, the faint flicker, historians believe, was the first true boogeyman-battling, bathroom-path illuminating nightlight. Evidence of controlling fire dates back to approximately 125,000 years ago, with some scholars guessing that Homo erectus may have mastered fire control as early as 400,000 years ago.
Our Early Lamps
The first lamps used by humans date back to approximately 70,000 BC. Simple in structure, they were comprised of a shell or hollow rock in which was a piece of moss soaked in flammable animal fat. Later iterations included bases made from terracotta, marble and metal, and substrates made of fish oil and olive oil. A wick was often added to lengthen the burning process, and to focus it more clearly.
Over time, various oils were used with different degrees of success. Fish oil, for example, gave the poorest light, and was very smoky. Animal fats burned better, but with an odor. Whale oil, which was rare and expensive, was the most sought after as it burned with the strength of two ordinary candles.
Kerosene Comes into the Picture
In the 19th century kerosene lamps were introduced in Germany. “These lamps were safer than candles because the glass cover prevented things from touching the flame,” says Dr. Shane.
The flames from Kerosene lamps could also be controlled more easily, and they usually lasted longer than candles. Kerosene lamps are still used today in rural areas of Africa and Asia, consuming up to 1.3 million barrels (77 billion liters) of oil per day, which is comparable to the annual U.S. jet fuel consumption (76 billion liters).
Betty Lamps Go Big
Betty lamps were usually made of metal (mostly iron), had rounded sides to create a small reservoir and a spout at one side. At the end of the spout sat a wick, so it could stick up just enough to be lit and fed into the reservoir, which was usually filled with animal fat. Most betty lamps were covered with hinged lids, and fixed with hooks that could be stuck into rafters or hung on pegs around the house.
The light sources are thought to be German, Austrian or Hungarian in origin, and date back to the mid 18th century. “The Betty Lamp’s name was taken from the German word besser, meaning ‘better,” says Dr. Shane. “The first versions came over on the Mayflower and were later improved upon by Benjamin Franklin.” They’re still popular today among history buffs, and the prized antiques often sell for thousands of dollars.
Fairy Lamps Find a Home
“In 1844, George Miller Clarke developed a candle lamp with a glass covering protecting the candle flame from touching other objects,” explains Dr. Shane. “His cousin Samuel created lamps whose glass coverings were delicate and ornate. Because of the soft light they produced, he called them fairy lights.”
These lamps’ original purpose was utilitarian, with the typical setup including the base, a cup for the candle, and the shade. A new type of candle was developed for fairy lamps, one that burned longer and mitigated the risk of fire – a common hazard in the Victorian era
As fairy lamps grew more popular, they became less utilitarian and more collectible. English designer Samuel Clarke patented fairy lamps in 1885, making them available to the masses, and they became extremely sought after due to the affordability and availability. Many people used them to light nurseries, sickrooms, hallways and bedrooms and loved the various styles they came in. (One model was even designed in the shape of a crown, to honor Queen Victoria, and she reportedly purchased 1,500 of them.)
Fairy lamps spread to America, and quickly became cultural fixtures — an exhibit at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, for example, featured an island lit completely by fairy lamps (thousands of which were donated by Samuel Clarke, himself). In the early 1950s, the Fenton Art Glass Company resumed production of the fairy lamp, and today the item continues to be highly collectible.
Nightlights Go Electric
In 1801, Sir Humphrey Davy invented the first electric carbon arc lamp by connecting wires to a battery and making carbon glow. Fast forward 70 years, and Thomas Edison and Sir Joseph Swann invented the electric incandescent lamp (independently), which passed electric current through a filament to produce heat and light. These bulbs were a base for the modern light bulb, and the modern night light.
The Clapper Comes of Age
It might be the most famous nightlight in history. Invented in the mid-80s, The Clapper was first sold in 1986 by Joseph Enterprises, Inc., Robert E. Clapper, Sr & Richard J Pirong and became a hit in the world of late night informercials. How it works: you plug the unit into any standard electrical outlet, then plug electrical appliances (usually lamps) into the unit itself. From there, all you do is clap to turn the devices on and off, making The Clapper the perfect nighttime accessory for entering and exiting bed.
The Current Crop
Today’s nightlights are available in a seemingly endless amount of varieties, from simple plug-ins, to kid-centric squeezable animals, to app-controlled, motion sensitive models and some more far out choices, like the Pizza Slice Nightlight seen above.