Lighting Commentary

The Shape of Light

Photo by Dhivakaran S on

Artificial light has been around since some caveman figured out how to create, or harness fire. In those early days, the shape of light was roughly equivalent to the pile of combustible material gathered to keep the fire functioning. Those early Neanderthals quickly learned that if the material was tightly packed, the burn was much more controlled and consistent. A heap of wood created a heap of light.

As we moved from caves to constructed dwellings, fire was now allowed inside, the fire transitioning from outdoor pits to fireplaces. Human demand for a more controlled application led us to create lanterns fueled by oils and candles supported by wax and wick. The candle and the lantern were no longer associated with its byproduct of either heat, or food preparation. Its sole reason for existence was illumination. Humans have been stuck with that shape ever since.

Stuck? What?

As interiors transitioned to gaslight, hanging lights, chandeliers and sconces retained the same basic shape and size of candlelight and oil light by forcing the gas to similar delivery shapes. A gas stopcock was added to form a flame that replicated the wick created fire. Barely a change in size is evident in the diffusers. While all of the creators of incandescent light started with a variety of proportions and dimensions, the eventual shape of electric light was finessed into the parameters established by flame and gas. The luminaire industry STILL to this day uses gas pipe thread as a standard across the industry and many of the components of a lighting fixture carry gas or plumbing names along with their odd thread sizes. Some of the most popular incandescent light bulbs are those shaped to replicate a flame. They fit nicely into chandeliers that replicate candle-holding lights of the past.

New York Magazine recently featured a reasonably well-researched article about the writer’s beef with LED. (There’s Something Off About LED Bulbs by Tom Scocca) He does makes some mistakes about CRI. I’ll reserve those for another blog post. The bulk of the content contains some of the typical complaints people have with LED, many of which I have addressed in previous posts relating to our desire for “cheap” and then being unhappy with the results; blaming it on the supplier who gave the consumer what they wanted. If you’ve ever seen the political cartoon “Tammany Ring” by Thomas Nast, you’ll understand this circular argument. Don’t give the customer what they want, because they don’t know what they want. Throughout the article he relates problems with LED because of shape.

Regardless of technology, consumers seem to want light in the package to which they have become accustomed. We want our LED to be shaped like incandescent, which was shaped like gas, which was shaped like a candle flame. Unfortunately, that is where science is having a bit of a problem. That problem is fodder for writers like Scocca.

When LED were new, cost was of secondary importance and the new light could be formed into whatever function was required. Form follows function was a principle attributed to Architect Louis Sullivan that states the item should in some way relate to the purpose. LED are not well suited for the confining shape of an incandescent envelope and screwshell. They must be kept cool and the narrowing screw-thread section of a light bulb provides so little space for cooling, as the article title intimates, they do some odd things. Function can’t (shouldn’t) follow form.

I have continually promoted and pushed fully integrated LED luminaires in opposition to retrofit LED lightbulbs for this very reason. Our kitchen was remodeled at the very early hours of LED. EVERY light in the room is LED. Almost all of them were “the first” LED products developed by companies like Cree, Philips and Kichler. They were also substantially more expensive than their incandescent counterparts at the time. None of the luminaires were “stuffed” into incandescent lamp enclosures. All of them are still functioning. I have had no problems with any of them and performance has been excellent.

As consumers, we can get what we want, but we should instead take what experts suggest. There is the old line about the first automobile that remains valid today. If asked, customers did not want a car, they just wanted a faster horse. Closer to today, no one ever asked for a mobile phone. Life today without a car or a mobile is almost inconceivable. Possible, but unlikely.

The same should be considered with LED. Eventually, engineers might figure out how to stuff LED into hot tiny confining places and maintain their performance characteristics. In the meantime, look to integrated luminaires as the later-day automobile or mobile phone. You’ll get what you do not yet know you want.

2 replies on “The Shape of Light”

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