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Lighting Across the British Empire: The Lighting Revolution in England, Canada and India

Fri, March 31, 10:30am to 12:00pm, The Drake Hotel, Georgian

Session Submission Type: Panel

Abstract

Recent work in the international field of energy history emphasizes that despite consistencies in the transformations associated with industrialization, variations in energy transitions existed not only amongst countries, but within them. This panel explores the differential meaning and impact of new forms of artificial light emerging during a period of rapid industrialization, focusing on three very different parts of the British Empire in the 1860-1920 period: England, the first country to make the transition from the organic to the mineral regime, and to create new forms of lighting from coal, oil and electricity; Canada, a largely white, rural and democratic colony gaining independence from Britain in 1867; and India, arguably Britain’s most important colony, characterized by the juxtaposition of rapid technological modernization and the persistence of traditional political economies and a population deeply divided by race and class.
As a whole, the panel uses modern lighting as a way of exploring the transnational flows of resources, capital, people, institutions and ideas that comprised the engine of Empire, where new forms of energy were shaping a new modern, industrial world. Individual papers, however, demonstrate the ways in which national and local environments, including social, political, and economic, are needed to explain the very different ways in which revolutions in lighting were taken up and experienced across space and time, and by different people in the same place and time. Utilizing a diverse set of case studies -- elite English country houses, Canada’s rapid uptake of kerosene and early use of hydro-electric lighting, and the contentious illumination of Indian cities -- the panel explores the potentials and challenges of an environmental history of lighting of the British Empire, highlighting in the process the vital importance of natural resources and global connections as well as the variety of local experiences ‘on the ground.’

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