When you think of fluorescent light, what first comes to mind? Some might think of hideous, headache-provoking office lights. Others might conjure up images of neon signs à la Vegas. For Galileo in 1612, upon witnessing fluorescence in nature, it was motherhood. He wrote:
“It must be explained how it happens that the light is conceived into the stone, and is given back after some time, as in childbirth.”
Whatever impressions you might have about fluorescent lighting, we think it’s time to set the record straight. Fluorescents have had a colorful, quirky, and sometimes uncomfortable past, but they certainly have a bright future.
Heinrich Geissler, a German glassblower and physicist, created his famous Geissler Tubes during this time. Geissler filled the tubes with different gases to be excited by metal electrodes at each end. They came in many intricate shapes and bright colors and were used as art for their very brief lives. Today they are considered the early ancestors of both fluorescent and neon lights.
1893: Nikola Tesla experimented with fluorescence, and displayed his works at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Edison also dabbled with fluorescent lights briefly during this time, using X-Rays to excite calcium tungstate. Neither model succeeded commercially, and both men found better things to do.
1894: Daniel McFarlane Moore invented the Moore Lamp, a glass tube 2-3 meters long filled with carbon dioxide and nitrogen—giving off a pinkish white glow. These massive lights were expensive and operated at a very high voltage, but were still more efficient than incandescent lamps.
1901: Peter Cooper Hewitt created a mercury vapor lamp, which could operate at a lower voltage. It is very similar to today’s modern fluorescent lamps, but it gave off a nasty greenish-blue tint and most consumers couldn’t use it.
1926: In Germany Edmund Germer, along with Friedrich Meyer and Hans J. Spanner, invented what we know to be the first true fluorescent lamp, using a fluorescent coating on the inside of the glass envelope.
1938: GE’s George Inman and others made several improvements to Germer’s model, which they began selling to a wider market.
WWII: Wartime caused the demand for and production of fluorescents to increase rapidly. The long tube-like fixtures were incorporated into office and industrial buildings for their low operating costs.
Early 1970s: Due to the 1973 oil crisis, all the major lighting corporations began attempts to shrink the fluorescent for residential use, to lower utility costs for homeowners.
1976: Edward Hammer created the first compact fluorescent (or CFL) with its familiar spiral shape.
1979: Phillips invented the first electronic ballast for a CFL, which moderated the light bulb turning on and off properly.
1982: Phillips made fluorescent lights attractive by adding rare earth phosphors. The phosphors emitted a warmer light and increased light output.
Late 1980s: CFLs hit the mass market.
1990: Earth Day was an epiphany in national consciousness about energy efficiency, climate change, and ozone depletion. CFLs started becoming popular.
2001: The price of CFLs began to decrease, and they rapidly started to infiltrate the homes of our nearest and dearest.
2009: China began restricting exports of rare earth elements, causing the price of CFLs to increase rapidly.
Today: The Rare-Earth Crisis has started to stabilize. CFLs and their close siblings cold cathode fluorescents (or CCFLs) are in most homes today. They come in a variety of natural, pleasing tints, and many are dimmable, capable of saving even more energy. Additionally, fluorescent ballast technology has improved, even eliminating the way fluorescents used to flicker when they first turned on.
Love this history stuff? Check out our article on the history of the incandescent here!