Dead fish as a light source

I learned in another thread recently that rotting fish give off a glow, and were at one time used as a safe light source in coal mines. What are the logistics of this?

Questions I’d like to know include : How much light does a rotting fish give off? How many fish were required to light a dig? How long would the light last, before the fish needed replacement? Just how bad was the smell?
I’m guessing the fish were put in clear glass jars, to shed their glow in all directions, rather than kept in buckets, is this correct?

Anyone know this stuff?

I don’t have answers to your direct questions, but I have seen bioluminescence in action and can verify that alot of light is given off.

Here’s a video of surfing through a bioluminescent algae bloom. But these critters remain alive.

According to wikipedia dried fish skins were used.

From my admittedly tiny exposure to such bioluminescence, the amount of light given off is miniscule.

Another early source of light was “foxwood”, or wood having luminous fungi on it (also called “foxfire”). The fungi grow on decaying wood. When Ezra Lee piloted Bushnell’s early submarine The Turtle against the British ship Eagle at night on Sept 6 1776, his instruments were illuminated with light from foxwood.

Link, please?

(First sentence in the “History” section.)

Heh. I remember a political foe likened to Henry Clay, a skilled and charismatic politician but perhaps not entirely honest, to a rotten mackerel by moonlight, “in that he both shined and stank.”

This is fascinating, thanks.

I sometimes read a way-out blogger who theorizes that some ancient cultures had unexpectedly modern technologies like electricity. He pointed out the beautiful ceiling artwork deep in some Egyptian tombs, which is utterly free of soot from any fuel-burning light source, claiming that they must thus have had electric light. But perhaps they painted by foxfire or the (I’m-sure-completely-wholesome-seeming) glow of dead fish!

I wrote an article about this in Optics and Photonics News in June of this year. It turns out that the claim that there’s no soot is exaggerated, the suggestion that they had electric lights was originally made tongue-in-cheek, and it’s not at all reasonable to think that they used a succession of mirrors to pipe light into the tombs. I’ll add that the kind of luminous fungi and bacteria we’re talking about here produce very weak light, and it’s not “white” light by any means, so the colors would probably be way off. There’s no doubt in my mind that the tombs were painted using not very sooty flame light sources.

Here’s a link, but, unfortunately, you need to be an Optica* member in order to log in. I can send copies on request

*as I noted in another recent thread, the Optical Society of America has recently changed its name to Optica. Otherwise I’d have said you have to be an OSA member


Here’s the claim as I read it: Whispers From Antiquity | Ecosophia

Please note well: I think this guy is very often full of shit, particularly so here.

This website (factfiend, don’t know much about it) says that dried skins weren’t stinky but didn’t give off as much light as the stinky dead fish.

This left miners with pretty much two options, work in the dark, or grab a bunch of fish. Now for the people who didn’t like the idea of working next to a rotting pile of dead fish, there was another, equally as fishy option. Skinning and then drying out a bunch of fish instead. You see, dried fish skins, like rotting fish also give off a form of bioluminescence known as phosphorescence. However, it’s noted that doing this only gave off a tiny amount of light so insignificant it was likened to working in the dark anyway.

Two trivia notes - for miners possibly otherwise working in pitch darkness, the light source is not really used to let you see what you are doing, its to orient you in the blackness. That is reason enough to tolerate the smell.

I’ve been watching The Terror, and it reminded me of an Inuit or Arctic fish-skin raincoat I saw in an ethnographic museum which was a spectacular garment [not the same one but best pic i found]. I wonder if they luminesce, and whether you stand out like a neon McDonalds sign for any hungry polar bear in the Arctic twilight.

Then there’s this:

When I went caving during my university days, carbide lamps were still the lamp of choice. LED lamps were still a way off, and incandescent lamps used batteries too fast, and were not generally considered robust enough.

Even on a dark night, a carbide lamp seemed a woefully inadequate source of light in the open air.

Underground, however, with pupils dilated and fully dark-adjusted, they were indeed more than adequate. The only issue was that they could go out when things got wet.

These days, LED lamps provide better reliability and light output for such environments.


That’s not a light bulb – I don’t care what the sensationalists write.

RE Light Sources And Ancient Egypt

We know the ancient Egyptians had beer (there’s a whole myth about Ra and Sekmet). IMH and uneducated O, it’s not unreasonable to assume they had more potent forms of ethanol. IIRC, burning alcohol with a high enough proof produces a blue flame and no smoke. IMHO, I can also see whatever ruler comissioned the tomb and its mural saying ‘All these torches and their smoke have left soot on the murals. Have the torches extinguished and have the workers clean the murals in the dark’

I have to log in to my work laptop now. I’ll be back after 5. If I’m wrong, pleas be kind.

It sounds very reasonable to me.

There has been soot found in temples and tombs, as well as depictions of oil lamps, so the dilemma id somewhat false (see this page, for instance, and its references – ).

Not all flames produce a lot of soot. We’ve been burning scented candles in our dining room for years without noticeably darkening the ceiling. Of course, modern paraffin, stearin, or soy candles are different from whatever the Egyptians may have used, but they had beeswax in addition to smoky beet fat candles, and oil lamps – the most likely light source used, as depicted on tomb reliefs, appropriately enough – can be pretty clean.