As a GM do you go too easy or too hard on your players when it comes to light? Some games masters often have their caverns and dungeons filled with luminescent fungi or crystals so the characters can continue with an impromptu adventure without being thwarted by a lack of torch light. In other games GMs pay careful attention to the inventory of candles just for that dramatic moment when the brave warriors are cast into darkness.
Light’s important. The ability to see in poor light or darkness is sometimes a racial perk. Forgetting to pay attention to illumination levels in those games is to do players with such characters a disservice.
Light can therefore be quite a challenge? Just how rare are good candles? How much do they cost? Would it be more cost effective to carry a lamp and oil? This post is inspired by some research by William D. Nordhaus who looked into the history of light and compared that to costs. You can download his paper at ideas.repec.org or scan it below.
Two tables have been reproduced below which might be of particular interest to roleplayers and world builders thinking about light. The first is a brief history of light from open fire to (nearly) modern lights.
|1,420,000 BCE||Fire used by Australopithecus|
|500,000 BCE||Fire used in caves by Peking man|
|38,000 – 9,000 BCE||Stone fat-burning lamps with wicks used in southern Europe|
|3,000 BCE||Candlesticks recovered from Egypt and Crete|
|2,000 BCE||Babylonian market for lighting fuel (sesame oil)|
|1292||Paris tax rolls list 72 chandlers (candle makers)|
|Middle Ages||Tallow candles in wide use in western Europe|
|1784||Discovery of Argand oil lamps|
|1792||William Murdock uses coal-gas illumination in his Cornwall home|
|1798||William Murdock uses coal-gas illumination in Birmingham offices|
|1800s||Candle technology improved by use of stearic acid, spermaceti, and paraffin wax|
|1820||Gas street lighting installed in Pall Mall, London|
|1855||Demonstration of electric-discharge lamp by the Royal Society of London|
|1860s||Demonstration of kerosene lamps|
|1876||William Wallace’s 500-candlepower arch lights, displayed at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia|
|1879||Swan and Edison invent carbon-filament incandescent lamp|
|1880s||Welsbach gas mantle|
|1882||Pearl Street station (New York) opens with first electrical service|
|1920||High-pressure mercury-vapor-discharge and sodium-discharge lamps|
|1930||Development of mercury-vapor-filled fluorescent tube|
|1931||Development of sodium-vapor lamp|
|1980s||Marketing of compact fluorescent bulb|
In this table Nordhaus goes to cross-compare sources of light with the cost to forma price index. It stretches from Babylonian times up to the last century.
|Device||Stage of Technology||Approximate Date||Price (cents per 1,000 lumen-hours)|
|Open fire||Wood||From earliest time|
|Neolithic lamp||Animal or vegetable fat||38,000 – 9,000 BCE|
|Babylonian lamp||Sesame oil||1750 BCE|
|Lamp||Whale oil||1815 – 45||29.886|
|Town gas||Early lamp||1827||52.524|
|Early lamp||1875 – 85||5.035|
|Welsbach mantle||1875 – 95||1.573|
|Kerosene lamp||Silliman’s experiment||1855||4.036|
|19th century||1975 – 85||3.479|
|Electric lamp||Edison carbon lamp||1883||9.228|
Interested to dig deeper? The Slideshare embed below contains the full paper.