Many are familiar with the light of the firefly or of its larvæ, the glow-worm, but few persons realize that a vast number of insects and lower organisms are endowed with the superhuman ability of producing light by physiological processes. Apparently the chief function of these lighting-plants within the living bodies is not to provide light in the sense that the human being uses it predominantly. That is, these wonderful light-sources seem to be utilized more for signaling, for luring prey, and for protection than for strictly illuminating-purposes. Much study has been given to the production of light by animals, because the secrets will be extremely valuable to mankind. As one floats over tide-water on a balmy evening after dark and watches the pulsating spots of phosphorescent light emitted by the lowly jellyfishes, his imaginative mood formulates the question,
“Why are these lowly organisms endowed with such a wonderful ability?”
Despite his highly developed mind and body and his boasted superiority, man must go forth and learn the secrets of light-production before he may emancipate himself from darkness. If man could emit light in relative proportion to his size as compared with the firefly, he would need no other torch in the coal-mine. How independent he would be in extreme darkness where his adapted eyes need only a feeble light-source! Primitive man, desiring a light-source and having no means of making fire, imprisoned the glowing insects in a perforated gourd or receptacle of clay, and thus invented the first lantern perhaps before he knew how to make fire. The fireflies of the West Indies emit a continuous glow of considerable luminous intensity and the natives have used these imprisoned insects as light-sources. Thus mankind has exhibited his superiority by adapting the facilities at hand to the growing requirements which his independent nature continuously nourished. His insistent demand for independence in turn has nourished his desire to learn nature’s secrets and this desire has increased in intensity throughout the ages.
The act of imprisoning a glowing insect was in itself no greater stride along the highway of progress than the act of picking a tasty fruit from its tree. However, the crude lantern perhaps directed his primitive mind to the possibilities of artificial light. The flaming fagot from the fire was the ancestor of the oil-lamp, the candle, the lantern, and the electric flash-light. It is a matter of conjecture how much time elapsed before his feeble intellect became aware that resinous wood afforded a better light-source than woods which were less inflammable. Nevertheless, pine knots and similar resinous pieces of wood eventually were favored as torches and their use has persisted until the present time. In some instances in ancient times resin was extracted from wood and burned in vessels. This was the forerunner of the grease-and the oil-lamp. In the woods to-day the craftsman of the wilds keeps on the lookout for live trees saturated with highly inflammable ingredients.
Viewed from the present age, these smoking, flickering light-sources appear very crude; nevertheless they represent a wide gulf between their users and those primitive beings who were unacquainted with the art of making fire. Although the wood fire prevailed as a light-source throughout uncounted centuries, it was subjected to more or less improvement as civilization advanced. When the wood fire was brought indoors the day was extended and early man began to develop his crude arts. He thought and planned in the comfort and security of his cave or hut. By the firelight he devised implements and even decorated his stone surroundings with pictures which to-day reveal something of the thoughts and activities of mankind during a civilization which existed many thousand years ago.
When it was too warm to have a roaring fire upon the hearth, man devised other means for obtaining light without undue warmth. He placed glowing embers upon ledges in the walls, upon stone slabs, or even upon suspended devices of non-inflammable material. Later he split long splinters of wood from pieces selected for their straightness of grain. These burning splinters emitting a smoking, feeble light were crude but they were refinements of considerable merit. A testimonial of their satisfactoriness is their use throughout many centuries. Until very recent times the burning splinter has been in use in Scotland and in other countries, and it is probable that at present in remote districts of highly civilized countries this crude device serves the meager needs of those whose requirements have been undisturbed by the progress of civilization. Scott, in “The Legend of Montrose,” describes a table scene during a feast. Behind each seat a giant Highlander stood, holding a blazing torch of bog-pine. This was also the method of lighting in the Homeric age.