Photo of woman demonstrating an early compact fluorescent lamp.


The Energy Crisis increased demand for efficient lamps. Westinghouse began to sell this Econ-Nova compact fluorescent in 1981.
© Philips Lighting Company


We are seeking information about changes in residential lighting over the last few decades. The following overview represents our starting point.

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ALMOST 30 YEARS after the Energy Crisis, most Americans still waste energy every time they switch on a light bulb. Some people have installed compact fluorescent bulbs and other energy-saving devices, but today most people illuminate their homes pretty much as they did in 1970.

Businesses and local governments have saved millions of dollars by moving to more efficient light bulbs, or "lamps," as they are known in the lighting industry. But for many homeowners, the logic of investing in more efficient—and more expensive—lamps is harder to see.

Lighting accounts for only about 6 percent of energy consumption in the home, so even the most efficient lamps don't make a dramatic difference in utility bills. Some of the new lamps also produce light that "feels" different from the familiar glow of incandescent bulbs. Most consumers simply don't think about lighting until a bulb fails.

Part of the reason people light their homes as they do lies in the history of residential lighting. Beginning in the 1920s, the price of generating electricity dropped steadily, lamps grew more powerful, and people became accustomed to brighter lights in their offices and homes. In an era of cheap electricity, skimping on light made little sense. 

In the 1960s, the situation began to change. The price of equipment to generate electricity began to climb sharply. The OPEC Oil Embargo of 1973 pushed up utility bills because many power plants burned fuel oil to make electricity. Smoggy skylines revealed another cost of burning fossil fuels for electric power, and pollution controls, such as scrubbers for coal plants, boosted electricity prices further. 

As high energy prices persisted, the meaning of efficiency in lighting began to change. For decades, efficiency had meant getting more light from a given amount of power. Efficiency gradually became a matter of getting the same amount of light from less power—a subtle switch in emphasis from light to power. As one General Electric engineer noted in a recent interview, "[The Energy Crisis] scared the wits out of the industry."

American consumers felt the scare mainly in their pocketbooks and began to pay closer attention to energy issues. People turned off lights to save energy, and some installed dimmers, timers, and sensors. Designers began rethinking how to light homes. Consumers also started looking for alternatives to traditional tungsten-filament incandescent lamps, which had changed little from the 1920s.

Some people switched to fluorescent lamps, especially in kitchens, laundry rooms, and workshops where the color quality and slower start-up time of fluorescents mattered less. Many homeowners chose more efficient high-intensity discharge lamps for exterior security and driveway lighting. 

Photo of GE Circline lamp in 1976.In the early 1980s, manufacturers such as General Electric, Sylvania, Philips, and others began introducing more efficient designs. Some were based on old research fluorescent tubes containing krypton gas and tungsten-halogen bulbs that worked in regular screw-in sockets were more or less pulled off the shelf and sent to market. Other new designs, like the circular fluorescent lamp seen here, were relatively simple extensions of known technology.

New research and development also began to focus on improving home lighting efficiency. Manufacturers introduced small metal halide lamps, such as the Electronic Halarc; compact fluorescent lamps, such as the Econ-Nova (seen at top); incandescent bulbs that used infrared reflecting film, such as the MI-T-Wattsaver; and other designs. Several of these lamps made it to the market only briefly; some still compete with traditional bulbs. 

The federal government promoted lighting efficiency at home with the Energy Policy Act of 1992, which eliminated several types of lamps in favor of more efficient replacements. Utilities pitched in with "bulb-swaps," encouraging their customers to trade in traditional filament lamps for compact fluorescents.

At one time, the Energy Crisis, conservation efforts, new technologies, and the urging of government and industry might have looked like a revolution in the making. But in 25 years they have barely challenged the reign of incandescent light bulbs, which remain inexpensive, easy to use, versatile, and reliable, even if they are power hungry. 

We hope to document more of the recent history of energy-efficient lighting. You can help by responding to a few questions on one (or more) of the Collecting History pages on this site. If you have helped to make or distribute efficient residential lighting, or if you have used these devices in your home, we invite you to give us the benefit of your experiences. Your responses will help us better understand both the history—and the consequences—of this technology.


© 2001 Smithsonian Institution
Last Updated: January 2001