28th October 1835

Dundee’s electric light demonstration

In the mid-1830s, artificial light, where available, was provided by naked candle flames, or by gas. However, Dundee inventor James Lindsay, who was employed as a lecturer at the Watt Institution, had been working on something altogether more practical: electric lighting.

Private experiments

His private experiments with light were described with some excitement by the Kentish Weekly Post of 13 October 1835 which, like other papers, described how, after two years of work, he was finally able to produce a constant electric light which, “in beauty, surpasses all others; has no smell, emits no smoke, is capable of explosion, and not requiring air for combustion, can be kept in sealed glass jars.” Today, we would know those jars as bulbs.

The paper continued, “it ignites without the aid of a taper, and it seems peculiarly calculated for flax houses, spinning mills and other places containing combustible materials. It can be sent to any convenient distance, and all the apparatus for producing it may be contained in a common chest.”

Illuminating discoveries

He might never have perfected his incandescent light as, according to his own notes, he had been working on three ideas simultaneously: power generation, electric telegraph, and lighting. However, after having success with his private experiments into producing constant light, his attention returned to telegraphy, and proved that a telegraph cable across the Atlantic would be a viable proposition. But, ultimately, his mind returned to the issue of light.

In his 1902 book, A History of Wireless Telegraphy, John Joseph Fahie quotes from a letter that Lindsay wrote to the Dundee Advertiser on 28 October 1835, in which he described what even he admitted was a far from perfect system. “The apparatus that I have at present is merely a small model. It has already cost a great deal of labour, and will yet cost a good deal more before my room is sufficiently lighted… I am writing this letter by means of it, at 6 inches or 8 inches distant; and, at the present moment, can read a book at a distance of one and a half foot.”

One inventor among many

Lindsay never perfected his electric light during his lifetime, and he was far from the only inventor working on a plan to bring safe, regular, predictable light to the masses. He died aged 68 on 29 June 1862, after five days of diarrhoea, and was buried in Dundee, where his obelisk in Western Cemetery is crowned by a winged, clenched fist gripping four lightning bolts.

Sir Joseph Wilson Swan and Thomas Edison were each granted patents for their own incandescent light bulbs in 1880 and 1879 respectively.



Other events that occured in October

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