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The Engineering behind Christmas Lights

Let's take a look at the engineering behind Christmas Lights!

Welcome to Undercover Engineers – Access All Areas. We’ve teamed up with inspirational engineers from around the globe, who are all working to make the world a better place.

From Missions to Mars to technology exploring the deepest oceans, from nano technology, to the design of some of the largest structures on earth. Exciting new innovations in engineering are changing and shaping our world in some amazing ways.

Let’s take a look at the engineering behind Christmas Lights!

well-lit house at night

Now, what comes to mind when you think about Christmas?  It might be pantomimes, Christmas light displays, a huge roast dinner or perhaps bad cracker jokes. 

What you might not think of is the engineering behind these things.  From the curtain rising at a pantomime to the Christmas illuminations switch on in your local town – and even the Christmas lights on a tree at home.  Engineering is behind a lot of the magic of Christmas. 

Did you know that Christmas lights started out hundreds of years ago as candles, attached to the Christmas tree using wax or pins.  I’m not sure how safe that would have been, health and safety must have been very relaxed.

There’s a whole journey between candles on trees to the flashing lights we have today.

Let’s take a look at the creation of the lightbulb

selective focus photography of string lights on roof top edge

Many engineers paved the way for the invention of the lightbulb, but it was engineer Thomas Edison who is credited with its invention in 1879, followed a year later when he created the first strand of electrical lights and decided that in the spirit of Christmas he would hang them outside his lab!

Whilst the Edison company started to make Christmas lights for people to put around their trees, people remained unsure about the new product and that you’d have to get an engineer to come to around to put them up – so only the very wealthy had them.  It wasn’t until American President Grover Cleveland used electric Christmas lights on the White House Christmas Tree in 1895 that the idea really caught on. 

And ever since then, Christmas lights have seen major improvements, thanks to engineers.

In the 1970s, Christmas lights were bulky and used a lot of energy.  They were very hot to the touch, broke easily and weren’t very environmentally friendly.

Engineers then started to work on LED bulbs, which use a lot less energy and are more efficient.  LED stands for light emitting diode. They work by an electrical current passing through a microchip, which illuminates the tiny light sources we call LEDs. Whilst the LED light had been invented by Nick Holonyak Junior in the 1960s, the technology wasn’t very advanced, and so in particular engineers worked on creating technology that improved their brightness and efficiency, ultimately creating the Christmas LED lights we use today. Whether your Christmas lights at home or a huge display in your town or city, Christmas lights are always improving.

Christmas light displays

angel topiary lights

When it comes to big light displays, there are engineers behind it making sure everything works. Yes, engineers work all year, not just at Christmas time, to make the incredible light displays we see.

All over the world, engineers design and install incredible light displays. 

Did you know that Oxford Street’s famous light display in London has over 300,000 recycled polymer LED lights – and that these bulbs use 75% less energy than regular lightbulbs.

I bet it takes a few engineers to screw in those lightbulbs!

On the other side of the world in Melbourne Australia, 120 cyclists have peddled away to generate enough electricity for 35,000 lights on the City’s Christmas trees; and in so doing set a world record for the number of bulbs lit up using peddle power. 

If you’re interested in creating the lighting for Christmas events or even music concerts and festivals, then perhaps a career as a lighting engineer is for you!  

We caught up with Joe Sandford‑Hughes, an engineer and CEO of Pytch – a company who design and create the lighting for some impressive events, from music festivals to Christmas Light trails – and that can include holograms.  It’s a pretty interesting job – you can hear his interview in the podcast below.

Created with the support from The Institution of Engineering and Technology.

For more information visit The IET.

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