University of Leicester

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Light satanic mills - the impact of artificial lighting in early factories

posted on 2010-03-26, 10:46 authored by Ian Edward West
For almost all of man’s existence, his life has been ruled by the sun; work and leisure activities were largely restricted to the hours of daylight. Until little more than 200 years ago, artificial light sources were ineffective for all but the most basic tasks and were, in any event, unaffordable by most members of society. The changes which have created our modern 24 hour culture, in which almost no activity is constrained by the availability of natural light, have taken place, in industrial societies, in a relative short period of time since the late 18th century, and are still proceeding in parts of the developing world. Previous studies of artificial lighting have relied heavily on cultural sources and provide an imperfect understanding of the effects these developments had on society. This project concentrates on the changes that lighting brought to the workplace, and applies the techniques of historical archaeology specifically to the factories of late 18th- and early 19th-century Britain, where so many aspects of modern industrial life were pioneered. The deployment of artificial lighting in factories (particularly of gas lighting, which was first developed in the cotton mills of Britain) is traced in over-view and through examination of a number of case studies. The results clarify the role this played in the wider dissemination of lighting technology and show how the impact which these developments had on the physical and socio-economic development of factories differs significantly from previous assumptions in several respects, most notably with regard to working hours and night work, which did not increase when better lighting became available. These findings suggest that other culturally-based assumptions about the impact of lighting on industrialising societies also need to be re-examined.



Palmer, M.

Date of award


Awarding institution

University of Leicester

Qualification level

  • Doctoral

Qualification name

  • PhD


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