Ancient oil lamps had a spout for a wick at one end, a handle at the other and a hole for filling the vessel with oil in the middle. They were usually flat for stability and rounded because they were made of clay. When brass lamps came into use, they kept the same shape as their clay predecessors.
These lamps had several shortcomings: the light was poor (not good enough for reading) and unsteady, they gave off odorous fumes, the light diminished as the oil level fell and, if hung, the oil reservoir would cast a large shadow.
In the late 18th century, whale oil became widely available and led to the design of more efficient lamps which were the forerunners of kerosene lamps. Kerosene replaced whale oil from the middle of the 19th century.
The earliest kerosene lamps had a cut, or moulded, glass front fixed to a milk glass bass with a brass fitting.
The possibility of using gas, which was the a wasted by-product of the manufacture of tar from coal, was first recognised in the 1790s by an English engineer, William Murdcock. Gas street lamps were installed in London by 1815 and was in use in most industrialised cities (including in Australia) from about 1830.
Gas wall brackets and standard lamps were produced as well as street lamps. But it was not until 1893, with the invention of the incandescent gas mantle by Count Auer von Welsbach, that the superiority of gas over oil was finally established. An incandescent mantle could be fitted to an ordinary gas burner to produce a bright, white light.
Gas lamps, however, had several disadvantages, including the danger from exploding gas and asphyxiating fumes and the inconvenience of having to be attached to gas pipes.
Electric arc lamps had been invented around 1801 but were not put into commercial use until 1858 and, then, only on a limited scale. The problem was that, although they gave a bright light, the carbon electrodes had to be replaced every few hours.
In 1879, Thomas Edison produced the first carbon filament electric lamp. These lamps produced a stable light for about 40 hours. (Their modern descendants have a life of around 1,000 hours.)
The development of the electric light coincided with the art nouveau movement in design and the great designers of the era, including Louis Comfort Tiffany in America and Emille Gallé and the Daum brothers in France, produced art nouveau floor and table lamps.
Did you know?
Louis Comfort Tiffany was the son of Charles Louis Tiffany, the famous jeweller.