Thursday, July 9, 2009

When The Light Bulb Went On

[This is the 2nd of 5 posts in this series]

When Thomas Edison invented the slow-burning filament light in the late 19th Century, it was little more than a curious gadget in a clear globe. If his invention was to become practical, Edison needed a glass enclosure sturdy enough to withstand the atmospheric pressure that would crush it when the required vacuum was created inside it. Glassblowers found ways to produce several of these bulbs a day. But when Edison’s invention met William Woods’ ingenuity in 1922, the real cultural impact of the glass light bulb was realized. Woods’ Ribbon Machine allowed molten glass to sag through holes into moving molds and was capable of producing thousands of light bulbs per minute.* It was the first of many products that "…would transform [glass] from a handmade specialty product into a machine-made commodity."*

Here we see the first evidence of the transformational power glass would have on modern culture. The process that led to the Ribbon Machine began in 1880 when Edison first went out in a search of a bulb maker. So it can reasonably be said that the light bulb-producing Ribbon Machine, which preceded Ford’s assembly line, was one of the original catalysts of our fully industrialized society. Machines such as this wedded technology to capitalism, fostered efficiency and automation, and thereby transformed modern culture in profound ways. For it was the birth of an industrial society that soon helped divide "the private realm of family and faith from the public realm of business and industry."* Prior to that time, most work was done in small villages, on family farms, or in the home itself. But with the appearance of mass-production factories, men were drawn away from the home by their work.

This change led not only to a weakened view of the importance of the home itself, but also to a radical change in the roles of men and women.* The modern workplace became more economically and personally disconnected from the home. In order to protect the family from the disappearing values of modernity, women and children were legally prohibited from working in the factories. As a result society, with the blessing of the church, put forth a "doctrine of separate spheres" that purposefully pressed for a dissection of the public world of business and finance from the private world of home and family.*

The mass production of the glass light bulb was just one development in a general trend of industrialization that led to these cultural implications. But the light bulb itself can also be seen to play a more specific role in the cultural transformation – as an icon of man’s power over nature. That same light bulb, the production of which required the factories that stole men from their homes and families, was also used to transform those factories into twenty-four hour-a-day production facilities. In a subtle but profound way the light bulb became a symbol of human ingenuity’s promise to conquer nature itself. Light bulbs allowed factories to run continuously through the night with total disregard for what had previously been a natural limitation on efficient work. Darkness became nothing more than a nuisance.

The light bulb was not only party to the industrial revolution, but also specifically able to overcome some of the physical limitations of the world. If darkness could be overcome simply by man’s own proclamation to let there be light, there was no reason to suspect any other natural barrier might dare stand in the way of his progress. Today that attitude lives on in the minds of genetic engineers who see embryonic stems cells as nothing more than the latest means to reach a similar end.

Man’s view of nature was not the only casualty that resulted from the technological impact of glass. Glass has also been complicit in the modernist distortion of the proper view of Christianity and culture.

{Juran, p. 52}
{Davis Dyer and Daniel Gross. The Generations of Corning. p. 57}
{Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth. pp. 327, 329, 330}


  1. Hi Bob,
    With all of the Emmett Till/Burr Oak Cemetary stuff in the news of late, I googled Emmett Till to get a better understanding of him and what happened to him. I stumbled across your blog in the process (due to your abortion/Emmett Till post) and have been thunderstruck by your blog. Your posts are very intellectual, concise, well-written, persuasive and inspiring. As a Christian, I am always delighted to come across information that helps to bolster my position, that arms me with the tools to better explain and/or defend my beliefs. Your blog is spectacular. I plan on sharing it with my friends. Keep on writing, you have an extraordinary gift!

    Thanks so much!
    ~Allison Engle

  2. Wow! Thanks Allie. I have to admit that most of the time it feels like I'm just talking to myself. You have no idea how encouraging it was to read your comment. I really do appreciate it.

    Blessings ...


Though I do not moderate comments, I reserve the right to delete any comment that I deem inappropriate. You don't have to agree with me, but I don't tolerate abusive or objectionable language of any kind.