Originally published Saturday, July 17, 2010 at 7:01 PM

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Book review

'Brilliant': how artificial light helped create the modern world

"Brilliant" by author Jane Brox recounts the story of how artificial light changed the course of civilization.

Special to The Seattle Times

'Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light'

by Jane Brox

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 368 pp., $25

"Having seen nothing but kerosene lamps for illumination, this was like getting a sudden vision of Heaven," wrote a young girl visiting the World's Columbian Exhibition of 1893. For many visitors, the lighting at the Chicago World's Fair was their first encounter with the dazzling brilliance of what modern people take for granted — immediate access to artificial light.

In her new book "Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light," award-winning author Jane Brox traces a chronologic path from animal oil lamps to light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to show how artificial light has transformed our existence. Along the way the traditional players of a niche history — politics, technology, money and power — play important roles. Clearly written with an engaging cast of characters, "Brilliant" is a thought-provoking account of arguably one of the greatest technological changes in the history of the world.

Humans have always sought artificial light. Initially, we relied on animals, such as caged fireflies, a lit chunk of dried salmon on a stick, or whale oil, so valued as a light source that hunters nearly drove several species to extinction, but then came rock-based light. Gas arrived first, followed by kerosene, and light crept out of the house and spread to city streets and factories, which led to more hours to play and to work. Not all benefited. Neither the poor nor those in the countryside could always get access and so often remained in the dark.

Brox's story makes a critical turn with Edison's development of the cheap incandescent bulb. Electricity now becomes the issue and she diligently traces its spread, which again separates poor and rich, city and country.

Artificial light has so transformed society that some say we have too much of it. We no longer see the heavens above. We sleep less. Animals also suffer, crashing into lights or losing their ability to navigate. Ultimately though, artificial lighting has helped make the modern world we live in, and Brox has done a first-rate job in telling its story.

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