The History of Light and Sound

Light and sound are two things that most people take for granted. They know that the sun will rise every morning and in the evening they only need to operate a switch and there is artificial light.

The same goes for sound, it is all around us from the birds chirping to people talking, and when we want to watch the TV or listen to music, all we need to do is select what we want.

While the natural light and sounds are always there, others such as the lights in your home and the sound from your TV have been created by amazing people that wanted to see where their experiments took them. This article will take a look at the history of light and sound and show just how amazing the things we use every day truly are.

Light – The Beginning

Probably the most profound discovery for early humans was the fire. This not only gave them the ability to stay warm and cook foods, but it also gave them the first light. So groundbreaking was this discovery, that for many people, fire was the only source of light until the invention of electricity.

Of course, not all fire was created from wood, as humans evolved and learned more about the world around them, new fuels were discovered that made fire more reliable and easier to create. For example, candles were a reliable way to keep an area illuminated for a period of time without having to constantly add more fuel.

Gas lighting was first used in the 18th century, with early lamps using a variety of fuels including methane and ethylene. However, through the 19th century, most gas was made from coal until natural gas took over.

Early Gas Lamps

An early attempt at an arc lamp was completed early in the 19th century, however, this technology wouldn’t be used until the 1880s. An arc lamp used two electrodes that were separated by a gas such as neon, argon on xenon. When ignited by an electric charge, the gas would be ionized and glow. Another type of early lamp used lime and was popular in the theater.

The Lightbulb

One of the people credited with making the biggest impact on lights was Thomas Edison. He had a number of patents and invented the incandescent light bulb. Before he died, he had perfected the light bulb so that it could last up to 1,200 hours, an improvement from the early days when it was as little as 40 hours.

Edison along with Nikola Tesla also worked on fluorescent lighting which used mercury vapor in a glass tube to fluoresce a coating on the inside when an electric current is passed through. By the middle of the 20th century, fluorescent lighting was more common than incandescent lights in the US.

LEDs or Light Emitting Diodes are now commonplace as a source of light. They were first discovered in the 1920s by Russian Oleg Vladimirovich Losev. However, his discovery wouldn’t be put to use until 1962 when Nick Holonyak Jr developed the first practical application of an LED.


Sound in it’s most basic form has been around since before humans, however, creating sound in a meaningful way and understanding how it works was first discovered by Greek Mathematician Pythagoras. He developed the first law of strings by understanding how the length of a string caused a different tone. He also realized that sound traveled through the air and was striking the eardrum.

In the 1600s French mathematician, Marin Mersenne, and British scientist Robert Boyle both made further discoveries around sound. Mersenne began experimenting on the speed of sound, while Boyle realized that without air, sound cannot be heard.


During the 1700s and into the 1800s, more discoveries were made into the relationship of sound including the discovery of sound ‘waves.’ In the 1890s, Wallace Clement Sabine developed the reverberation time when asked to improve the acoustics of Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum. He experimented with different cushions and fabrics until he had been able to absorb a lot of the reverberation.

Recorded Sound

From this point on in history, there was a lot of development in sound and in particular, how it could be recorded and heard again many times.


Thomas Edison was again influential in bringing recorded sound with his Phonograph. The tin-foil cylinder was etched by a needle from the vibrations of the person speaking into the mouthpiece. This sound could then be played back bt the same machine. Although the invention was never popular, it did begin the era of recorded sound and music.

Also in 1887, the gramophone was also being developed by Emile Berliner which played discs as opposed to Edison’s Cylinders.


By the 1950s, there were big strides in music and sound technology. The first vacuum tube amplifier was developed in 1907 and this made it possible to create radio waves that led to the first radio broadcasts.

Texas Instruments further developed the vacuum tubes into resistors and started to make the first transistor radios. These were lighter and smaller than the tube types, and the transistors didn’t need to be replaced.

The way sound was recorded changed quickly in the years that followed. In 1979 Sony created the first Walkman which used the Philips compact cassette format developed in the 1960s. By the 1980s, cassette tapes were being taken over by the Compact Disc or CD, and by 1992, Sony had developed a smaller version called the MiniDisc.

The next big leap was in 2001 when Apple brought the iPod to market. This used MP3 recordings that didn’t need to be stored on physical media.


These are, of course, only some of the many steps that light and sound took to become what it is today. However, one thing is clear, innovation and experimentation were at the heart of some amazing technology that continues to develop to this day.

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