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Illuminating Primary Sources with Electric Lights

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This post is by Kellie Taylor, Ed.D., the 2018-2019 Library of Congress Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow.

What would it be like to walk city streets without streetlights? Or to read a book or do homework by candle light? Elementary students may struggle to understand the many changes that electricity brought about in homes and industry, but focusing on the changes brought by electric lighting may be easier for them.

Ask students to observe “Two women by a small table“ with a partner and share details that they see. Some may notice how dark the surrounding room is in comparison to the area directly by the candle. Others might note that one woman is sitting, the other standing, and there are various items on the table. What do students think is happening in this picture?

They should continue working in pairs to describe what they think is happening and to list questions they may have. They might wonder: Why can’t they see much around the rest of the room? What is the picture hanging on the wall? Why was this image created? Allow time for partners to share briefly with the class. Focus attention on the patterns of light and dark and ask students to speculate on why so much of the room is dark.

Two women by small table lighted by candle. Wladyslaw Benda

If possible, darken the classroom and have students use flashlights as the primary light source to complete an activity. Stand the flashlights pointing upward on the desks – remember, candles and gas lamps didn’t point down!

With darkness lit only by candles or gas lamps, the illumination does not reach beyond a small circle and the flames pose a hazard, too. Before electric lighting, candles, gas lights, oil lamps, and fires were used for illumination. Electric lights not only provided better illumination, but they also provided a safer form of lighting. The advent of electricity and electric lights, which are brighter, more consistent, and safer, led to advancements in our homes and industry. Interior and exterior electric lights release people from the confines of a day dictated by the number of daylight hours.

After developing an understanding of the importance of electric lights, challenge students to create a paper circuit to illuminate a primary source that includes electric lights, such as Schneider Electric Store Interior or Illuminations on Penn. Ave. Washington for Inauguration. Paper circuits are low-voltage circuits created on paper using conductive copper tape, LEDs and a coin-cell watch battery. Creating circuits is a hands-on way to teach the basics of electricity and how circuits function. Illuminating primary sources that demonstrate the impact of early electricity can help provide real-world context to the manipulation of circuits.

Sample primary sources, paper circuit instructions, and a model document for creating a folding card with the chosen primary source can be found in this album.

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