Light bulb

Picture copyright
Thinkstock

Again within the mid-1990s, an economist referred to as William Nordhaus carried out a series of simple experiments with light.

First, he used a prehistoric expertise: he lit a wooden fireplace.

However Prof Nordhaus additionally had a chunk of hi-tech tools with him – a Minolta gentle meter.

He burned 20lb (9kg) of wooden, stored observe of how lengthy it burned for and thoroughly recorded the dim, flickering firelight together with his meter.

Subsequent, he purchased a Roman oil lamp, fitted it with a wick, and stuffed it with cold-pressed sesame oil.

He lit the lamp and watched the oil burn down, once more utilizing the sunshine meter to measure its gentle, even glow.

Invoice Nordhaus’s open wooden fireplace had burned for simply three hours on 9kg of wooden.

However a mere eggcup of oil burned all day, and extra brightly and controllably.

Why did he do that?

He wished to grasp the financial significance of the sunshine bulb.

However Prof Nordhaus additionally wished to light up a tough challenge for economists: the way to maintain observe of inflation, the altering price of products and providers.


Discover out extra

50 Things That Made the Modern Economy highlights the innovations, concepts and improvements that helped create the financial world.

It’s broadcast on the BBC World Service. You will discover more information about the programme’s sources and listen online or subscribe to the programme podcast.


To see why that is tough, take into account the value of travelling from – say – Lisbon in Portugal to Luanda in Angola.

When that journey was first made, by Portuguese explorers, it will have been an epic expedition, presumably taking months.

Later, by steam ship, it will have taken a couple of days; then, by aircraft, a couple of hours.

An financial historian may begin by monitoring the value of passage on the ship, however as soon as an air route has opened up, which value do you have a look at?

Unbundling the fee

Possibly you merely change to the airline ticket value as soon as extra individuals begin flying than crusing.

However flying is a unique service – sooner, extra handy.

If extra travellers are keen to pay twice as a lot to fly, it hardly is sensible for inflation statistics to file that the price of the journey has all of the sudden doubled.

It was to lift this query over the best way we measure inflation that Invoice Nordhaus began playing around with wooden fires, oil lamps and lightweight meters.

Picture copyright
iStock

Picture caption

Prof Nordhaus discovered the Roman oil lamp supplied a lot better gentle

He wished to unbundle the price of a single high quality that people have cared deeply about since time immemorial, utilizing the state-of-the-art expertise of various ages: illumination.

Mild is measured in lumens, or lumen-hours.

A candle offers off 13 lumens whereas it burns.

A typical fashionable gentle bulb is nearly 100 instances brighter than that.

Prohibitively costly

Think about gathering and chopping wooden 10 hours a day for six days.

These 60 hours of labor would produce 1,000 lumen hours of sunshine.

That’s the equal of 1 fashionable gentle bulb shining for simply 54 minutes, though what you’ll really get is many extra hours of dim, flickering gentle as an alternative.

After all, gentle just isn’t the one motive to burn fires: additionally they assist maintain you heat, prepare dinner your meals and scare off wild animals.

Should you simply wanted gentle and a wooden fireplace was your solely choice, you would possibly determine to attend till the Solar comes up.

Hundreds of years in the past, higher choices got here alongside – candles from Egypt and Crete, and oil lamps from Babylon.

Their gentle was steadier and extra controllable, however nonetheless prohibitively costly.

In a diary entry of Might 1743, the president of Harvard College, the Reverend Edward Holyoake, famous that his family had spent two days making 78lb (35kg) of tallow candles.

Six months later, he famous: “Candles all gone.”

And people have been the summer season months.


Extra from Tim Harford

The iPhone at 10: How the smartphone became so smart

The steel box that changed global trade

The hidden strengths of unloved concrete

How the barcode changed retailing


Nor have been these the clean-burning paraffin wax candles we use at present.

The wealthiest may afford beeswax, however most individuals – even the Harvard president – used tallow candles, stinking, smoking sticks of animal fats.

Making them concerned heating up animal fats and dipping and re-dipping wicks into the molten lard.

It was pungent and time-consuming work.

Picture copyright
World Historical past Archive / Alamy Inventory Photograph

Picture caption

A tallow chandler dips a body of candles into a shower of liquid fats

In keeping with Prof Nordhaus’s analysis, if you happen to put aside one complete week a yr to spend 60 hours devoted solely to creating candles – or incomes the cash to purchase them – that might allow you to burn a single candle for simply two hours and 20 minutes each night.

Issues improved a bit because the 18th and 19th Centuries unfolded.

Candles have been product of spermaceti – the milk-hued oily gloop harvested from useless sperm whales.

American founding father Ben Franklin liked the robust, white gentle they gave off, and the best way they “could also be held within the hand, even in sizzling climate, with out softening”, and famous that they “final for much longer”.

Nice leap ahead

Whereas the brand new candles have been pleasing, they have been additionally expensive.

George Washington calculated that burning a single spermaceti candle for 5 hours an evening all yr would price him £eight, or effectively over $1,000 (£820) in at present’s cash.

Just a few many years later, gasoline lamps and kerosene lamps helped to decrease prices.

In addition they saved the sperm whale from extinction.

However they, too, have been mainly an costly problem.

They dripped, smelt and set fireplace to issues.

Picture copyright
Getty Pictures

Picture caption

Thomas Edison’s carbon filament gentle bulbs represented an infinite technological leap ahead

Then one thing modified.

That one thing was the sunshine bulb.

By 1900, one in all Thomas Edison’s carbon filament bulbs would give you 10 days of vibrant, steady illumination, 100 instances as vibrant as a candle, for the cash you possibly can earn with our 60-hour week of exhausting labour.

By 1920, that very same week of labour would pay for greater than 5 months’ steady gentle from tungsten filament bulbs.

By 1990, it was 10 years.

A few years after that, because of compact fluorescent bulbs, it was greater than 5 instances longer.

Icon of innovation

The labour that had as soon as produced the equal of 54 minutes of high quality gentle now produced 52 years.

And fashionable LED lights proceed to get cheaper and cheaper.

Swap off a lightweight bulb for an hour and you’re saving illumination that might have price our ancestors all week to create.

It might have taken Benjamin Franklin’s contemporaries all afternoon.

However somebody in a wealthy industrial financial system at present may earn the cash to purchase that illumination in a fraction of a second.

Picture copyright
iStock

Picture caption

LED bulbs supply sharper, cheaper and extra power environment friendly illumination

And naturally our gentle bulbs are clear, secure and controllable – no flicker, pig fats stink or danger of fireplace.

The sunshine bulb has turn out to be an icon of innovation.

It has reworked our society into one the place we are able to work, learn, sew or play every time we wish to, no matter how darkish the evening has turn out to be.

However the value of sunshine alone tells an interesting story: it has fallen by an element of 500,000, far sooner than official inflation statistics counsel.

A factor that was as soon as too valuable to make use of is now too low-cost to note.

Tim Harford writes the Monetary Instances’s Undercover Economist column. 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy is broadcast on the BBC World Service. You will discover more information about the programme’s sources and listen online or subscribe to the programme podcast.