The Evolution of Street Lighting

From gas lights to incandescent, wax candles to LED… where did street lighting start, what is available today and where is the technology heading? We take a look at the UK’s street lighting journey.

The Evolution of Street Lighting
Where it all began

Believe it or not the first known version of a street light came into being in around 140bc! The Greeks and Romans used oil lamps to illuminate paths and roads outside their homes in the hope of deterring thieves and increasing visibility and safety. Richer residents employed lanternarius slaves to ensure the street lights stayed lit and clean throughout the night.

This process continued into the Middle Ages when candle street lights, which came into play around 1417 (commissioned by Sir Henry Barton, Mayor of London), illuminated the major towns and cities in England. Each city would have a designated link-boy to light the candles ready for the hours of darkness.

This system remained the norm until the run-up to the Turn of the Century in 1807 when the first gas-lit street light was demonstrated in Pall Mall, London by Frederick Albert Windsor. Just two years after the first demonstration, Westminster Bridge was entirely lit with gas luminaires.

68 years later, in 1875, the ‘Electric Candle’ was developed in Russia and brought to England just three years later in 1878. The electrical arc lamp, as well as high powered incandescent lamps, ruled the English city streets throughout the 1800s into the early 1900s. Arc lamps were then decommissioned, to be replaced by high-intensity discharge lamps such as high pressure sodium (HPS). These solutions have now been in place (with various minor upgrades to columns, head units and lamp technology along the way) for over 100 years and can still be seen across the UK today.


Although LEDs themselves were invented by scientist Nick Holonyack, Jr. in 1962, the first LED street lights were not installed in the UK until 2011 in Somerset.
Since then the technology has boomed and local authorities, businesses and contractors are continuing to utilise it to maximise energy and cost savings around the world.

The implementation of LED street lighting also provides increased control and versatility, allowing the client to specify colour temperature, wattage (in relation to road parameters), optical pattern and dimming regime to suit any application.

The best is yet to come!

The introduction of LEDs has realigned the lighting industry to encourage a focus on energy, maintenance and cost savings. The introduction of solar to street lighting in the coming years will again bring to the attention of the market the potential savings associated with solar when supported by innovative smart controls.

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