Industrial Lighting Gets to Work

From Edison bulbs to railroad-trolley coffee tables, it’s hard to miss the widespread popularity of industrial style these days. But what exactly does “industrial” mean when it comes to lighting? Allow us to elaborate.

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While 19th-century advances in gas lighting brought very real change to the realm of home and family, perhaps the more significant impact was felt in the world of work. Before the introduction of artificial light, factory operation was limited to daylight hours and organized around proximity to large windows where workers could see what they were doing (like the one guy above). However, with the increased use of gas lighting in factories and workshops in the latter half of the 1800s, factories soon had no curfew and no square footage restraints – the Industrial Revolution was on, and industrial lighting was there to illuminate it.

The Two Flavors of Industrial Lighting: General and Task

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The Holophane Company’s prismatic reflectors were chosen based on desired light distribution.

The earliest industrial lighting aimed for general illumination for manufacturing and commercial spaces and maximum light at minimal cost, usually using simple iron or brass fixtures fitted with open-flame burners, sometimes combined with wire cages or glass shades to protect the flame (like our Ironside). When electricity entered the picture in the 1880s, the forms stayed largely the same, just with bulbs instead of burners. These fixtures often had minimal ornamentation, multiple bulbs or burners and spreading arms, and sometimes a reflecting device using segmented mirrors to direct more light downward (like our Menlo). The key characteristic of general industrial task lighting is efficient and straightforward use of materials and technology, and shades that spread light over a wide area.

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Large reflectors made from segments of mirror were used for general illumination well into the 20th century.

However, electricity had two advantages over gas. First, electrical lamps could be turned upside down for direct illumination – try that with a gas flame – and second, power could be delivered much more easily through flexible wires rather than hard-plumbed pipes. The result was task lighting mounted near or directly on shop tables and machinery to light the work at hand (cord fixtures like our like our McCoy and Wiley, and swinging brackets like our Bend or Fords Mill). The key characteristic of industrial task lighting is flexibility and adjustability to get light where it is needed, and shades that focus the light on a specific area.


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The caption says it all about industrial task lighting.








Industrial Lighting Trends

Over time, industrial lighting advanced alongside technology, and each period had its own look and feel – arc lights in the 1880s and 1890s, high-wattage Mazda C nitrogen-bulb fixtures in the 1910s (like our Hood), and fluorescent lighting in the 1940s. RLM-type metal shades with colored enamel finishes were popular for the entire century (like those on our Warehouse lights).

Industrial Lighting Today

Of course, history is just part of the story. Today, “industrial lighting” has taken on a more eclectic life and meaning that has more to do with character and romance than grease and sawdust. Early unadorned, functional fixtures remind us of how beauty can be found in simple, honest design. Classic, hardworking materials like brass, iron, and glass speak of durability, craft, and a job done well. And at a time when so much technology is virtually invisible, it is both refreshing and satisfying to turn on sockets with turnkeys that click, see bulbs that emit light from glowing incandescent filaments, and choose shades that are shaped, cut, colored, and fitted by hand to give another century of dependable service.

To see more images of industrial lighting, view this slide show.

Industrial pendants from a Sears & Roebuck catalogue

More examples of industrial lighting from Sears & Roebuck c.1915

The O.C. White Style 4KK. Much sought-after by collectors.

An office setting c.1910 utilizes various industrial-style fixtures

Faries articulated fixtures

Suggested use for multiple articulated industrial lights

Doing paperwork under a metal dish reflector, c.1910