PICT Visiting Lectures IV: The Other Age of Enlightenment

“The Other Age of Enlightenment” by Ara Kebapcioglu, the fourth event in the PICT Visiting Lectures series, took place on 6 December 2023 at the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées (ENPC). The lecture focused on the history of artificial lighting and the ways in which it was revolutionized in the 19th century.

While most of human history largely knew artificial lighting via inefficient lamps based on vegetable oil, the 19th century witnessed the introduction of different energy sources powering a wide range of lighting technologies and devices, resulting in a fierce competition that only ended with the victorious emergence of electricity-based lighting.

Cities such as Paris were deeply transformed by this process and the accompanying construction of new factories, storage facilities, and urban infrastructure. Public lighting by gas and later electricity changed all aspects of urban life from socialization to the arts, with painters illustrating the newly illuminated city as well as the nightlife resulting from this illumination. Sculptors and architects followed suit: The Paris Opera hosts some of the most remarkable gas lamps still in operation and even a statue immortalizing the gas meter.

In a lively Q&A-session, Kebapcioglu extended his reflections to the present day. Regarding energy conservation by means of switching out the few remaining public gas lamps for electrical ones, Kebapcioglu stressed the vital historical link these lamps provide, arguing that energy can be saved much more impactfully elsewhere, such as by reducing arms expenditures. He further pointed to certain facts easily forgotten in the energy dispute, for instance that gas lights pose no hazard to insect life.

Kebapcioglu also responded to a question about his own career as the owner and curator of Lumière de l’œil, the Paris museum, library, and workshop devoted to the history of lighting. Trained as a musician and a chemist, Kebapcioglu found himself developing his own unlikely career path after encountering an abandoned lamp on a roadside and restoring it in what turned out to be the first step in a life of passionate pursuit. The lecture, which coincided with Kebapcioglu’s birthday, ended with the audience congratulating him on the memorable occasion.

Our thanks go out to Ara, but also to Steve Brown, President of the Languages and Cultures Department at ENPC, and everyone else who helped to bring about this great event. We are especially grateful to everyone in the audience who joined us for the occasion and enriched the afternoon with their questions and contributions!