A visitor to Victorian London who found themselves in its many narrow alleys would have seen large numbers of wooden shutters reflecting sunlight into the offices.
These weren’t just wooden shutters though, but Chappuis’ Patent Daylight Reflectors, invented by a French photographer based on Fleet Street in 1850, and there was a whole range of them to improve lighting inside buildings before widespread electric lighting.
Little known about today, the idea of reflecting daylight into buildings is making a bit of a comeback as people come to appreciate the benefits of natural light over artificial.
But first back to Victorian times.
Paul Émile Chappuis was born in Paris in 1816, but moved to London and set up a photographic studio at 69 Fleet Street.
Quite how he came up with the idea of the Daylight Reflector is unknown, but as he was operating a photo studio, good daylight was essential to his work, and he presumably came up with the idea of using a reflective surface to deflect more light into his studio rooms.
He seems to have started production in 1851, with a number of new patents filed in 1863 and 1856 for new variants.
The reflector can be described, simply as a mirror — being a solid wooden panel that was coated on one side by silver which was protected by glass. What made it patentable was the description of the mirrored side, which was described as having “scientifically-shaped surfaces, diagonal, astral, prismatic, and concave” to maximise the amount of light being reflected in through the window.
Whether all those shaped surfaces made a difference or was just marketing to protect a patent is open to conjecture.
Hinged at the bottom they came with adjustable chains to hold the reflector at the correct angle to catch the most light.
The adverts, as was commonplace at the time, listed many of the company’s grandest customers, such as Her Majesty’s Commissioner of Works and the Houses of Parliament, along with offices, shops, hotels, and private houses.
There are suggestions that Paul Chappuis was not an immediate success and may have been briefly jailed for debt in 1859 after being declared a bankrupt, but the business recovered and resumed production in 1868.
A glowing report in The Westminster Budget on 5th May 1899 talked about a newly built reference library having dimly lit rooms, and the addition of Messrs. Chappuis’ reflectors created “magic was little short of the word to express the effect produced; a flood of reflected daylight filled the room. In the place of darkness there was light”.
The newspaper noted that since they went on sale in 1851, “no less than 50,000 reflectors of this firm’s manufacture have been fixed in London alone”
The Chappuis Daylight Reflector was made in several versions, the “A” quality, silvered, narrow fluted glass, was described as suitable for basement rooms; the “B” quality, of patent silvered argento- crystal, was a more powerful medium suitable for offices, warehouses, and dwellings and the ” D ” quality, of patent silvered luminarium, was said to be the most powerful reflector, made of moulded sheets of crystal, coated with pure silver.
It was clearly a popular idea, as Chappuis protected his patent by suing rival manufacturers at least a couple of times, but only it seems in London. Rival manufacturers in Manchester seemed to be left alone.
In January 1901, the Building News carried out an experiment in a basement office that had a large partition down the middle, allowing them to test the Chappuis Reflector on one side, and a rival refracting prism.
They found that the reflector worked considerably better than the prism in directing light into the basement offices. They noted that the refracting prism suffered from having an extra layer of glass for the light to pass through, reducing its intensity compared to the reflection off the shiny surface of the reflector.
In 1915, a law restricting people from hanging items from the fronts of their buildings too low or close to the road included an exemption for Light Reflectors, showing us they were still in widespread use.
Although it’s claimed that the company stopped production in 1943, when a German bomb destroyed the factory, in 1950, the company was still listed as permitted to style itself as “By Appointment to the late King George V”.
The days of the reflector were numbered though. The widespread adoption of electric lighting and much larger windows was making rooms bright without the need for reflectors hanging outside, and in the post-war rebuilding of London, there was no need to add them to the new buildings. Unlike more recent conversions of old warehouses which tend to retain some of the industrial features as decorative adornments, no one seemed to want to retain any of the surviving reflectors.
They are a once very common aspect of London life that managed to survive for nearly a century before being largely forgotten.
But, they’re making a comeback, in a more modern style of course.
Light tubes, to direct light deep into buildings emerged in the 1980s, but for windows, there’s a modern version of the Light Reflector.
These days they’re called Light Shelves and are flat sheets usually made from frosted glass that refract some of the daylight streaming into a room to bounce off the ceiling to reach deeper into the room. Less electric lighting to cut costs (and be eco-friendly), and natural daylight is known to be better for health than artificial, so better for the people living/working in those rooms.
The other huge advantage if you have windows that need blinds pulled down to hide the glare of the sun, is that the light shelves still work when the blind is down, so people can still have daylight without being blinded by the sun.
So a 150 years after it was first invented, the Light Reflector is still in business.