Radical drop in cost of lighting as indicator of how much better our lives are today

From really expensive candles to cheap electricity for brighter light bulbs. What luxury we now have!  “Trip the Lights Fantastic” by Anne Worner is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

One measure of how radically life has improved over the centuries is how much nighttime illumination can be purchased from a certain amount of labor.

For example, George Washington calculated that it cost him £5 a year to provide himself five hours of reading light every evening. That is the equivalent of about $1,000 today.

Imagine spending $83 a month to light only one lamp in your entire house.

We are amazingly rich today.

This insight provided by Human Progress on 2/15/17:  How the cost of light has fallen by a factor of 500,000.

Here are some reference points provided by the article:

  • Prehistoric times – chop wood 10 hours a day for six days, or 60 hours of work for 1,000 lumen hours, which is equal to a modern bulb burning for 54 minutes.
  • George Washington – mid or late 1700s – 5 hours of candles a day cost equivalent of $1,000 a year.
  • 1900 – it cost 60 hours labor for 10 days of light bulb. Oh, that would be 100 times brighter than Pres. Washington’s candles and without flickering or odor.
  • 1920 – 60 hours would pay for 5 months light
  • 1990 – 60 hours would pay for 10 years
  • 2017 – same amount of labor will pay for 52 years of a light bulb. Oh, the math on that assumes running the light bulb 24 hours a day.

Use that as an indicator of how so much more rich we are today than 200 years ago, and especially compared to 1000 years ago. Here are the hard numbers :

  • prehistoric, I’ll assume 2000 B.C. – .9 hours
  • 1900 – 10 days, or 240 hours
  • 1920 – 5 months, or 3600 hours
  • 1990 – 10 years, or 87,600 hours
  • 2017 – 52 years, or 455,520 hours

Here is the info even more compressed:

year hours light from 60 hours work
prehistoric            0.9
1900         240
1920       3,600
1990     87,600
2017   455,520

I tried graphing the data, but the timeline is so extreme, I can’t get the graph to work.

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