It's hard to imagine modern life without electric light. Flick a switch or walk out onto the street nowadays and the sun never sets. Go back just 200 years, however, and London was still lit only by candles and oil lamps. Richer folk lit their homes with candles made from beeswax or whale oil, whilst poorer folk had to make do with smelly, smoky tallow candles made from animal fat. In 1807 Pall Mall became the first street in the capital to be lit by gas, spreading to 213 streets by 1823, but indoors candlesticks and candelabra still ruled. In 1859 the Houses of Parliament were lit by gas for the first time and only then did gas lighting start to become fashionable inside the homes of London's wealthy. Electric light arrived on the streets in 1878, starting on Holborn Viaduct, but its use was not widespread indoors until after the First World War.
Today, London belches light out into the night sky. Street lamps, spotlights, illuminations, adverts, security lighting and three million houses, all contribute to the most severe light pollution in the UK, beaming light upwards where it isn't needed. This satellite photo (hi-res version here) taken from the International Space Station shows London lit up like a giant, luminous amoeba, with a dazzling central nucleus. The night sky over the capital has a dull orange glow and only a few of the brightest stars are ever visible - in fact the only star some London children will ever have seen is the Sun. And it's getting worse across the rest of the country too (check your region here) where sight of the Milky Way has become merely a distant memory. Join the campaign for better-designed street lighting and darker skies here. Maybe there was a lot to be said for candle-power after all.