Who Really Invented The Lightbulb?



Remember in elementary school when we learned about electricity and lightbulbs on a very fundamental level? Ask anyone, and they’ll tell you they were taught that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. Well, what if I told you that you, and everyone else, are wrong (Delicately, of course. I might be a MythBusters, but I’m not trying to be a jerk about it)? 

Table of Contents

  1. 75 Years Before Edison
  2. Trying again...
  3. The First Practical Bulb
  4. Along Comes Edison 
  5. Why is Edison the Name We Know?
  6. The Shady Side of Thomas Edison
  7. Rivalries in the Electrical Industry 
  8. After Edison
  9. Green Energy and the Rise of LED



75 Years Before Edison  

In the early 1800’s, and even as far back as the late 1700’s, English scientists were working to develop advancements in technology following America's revolutionary war. At the time, the competition for technological growth had the same vibe as the great space race during the Cold War in the 20th Century. England had just lost the American Colonies and a new United States was trying desperately to prove themselves as a country.  

For a long time, gas and oil lamps were the predominant source of light after the sun set, but in the early 1800’s it was getting difficult to procure oil, along with a means to light the lamps. (Matches didn’t exist yet.) This prompted scientists to find solutions to their lack of light, leading to quite a competition between England and the U.S. 

However, in 1803, a little over 40 years before Thomas Edison was even born, an English scientist, named Humphry Davy invented what he dubbed the “carbon arc lamp.” This was considered the first-ever successful artificial light demonstration.  



The device worked by sending electrical current through two carbon electrodes separated by an air gap. The heat vaporized the carbon at the tips of the electrodes, producing a bright light that made a humming noise as it burned. Over time, the carbon electrodes would burn down, requiring that the device be adjusted to maintain the proper gap.  

So, while this was the first light by technicality, it could hardly be considered a bulb.  


Trying again and again and again and again.... 

Throughout the next seven decades, other inventors came forward with their versions of the light bulb, but no designs were solid enough for commercial application. With so many of these prototypes flying around, it’s hard to pinpoint who, or how many inventors came close to inventing what we would consider a lightbulb by today’s standards.  

Then, in 1840, British scientist Warren de la Rue emerged with his invention; He enclosed a coiled platinum filament in a vacuum tube and passed an electric current through it. The design was based on the concept that the high melting point of platinum would allow it to operate at high temperatures and that the evacuated chamber would contain fewer gas molecules to react with the platinum, improving its longevity. And while this was the most efficient design at the time, the cost of the platinum made it impractical for commercial production.  




The First Practical Bulb 

Launching forward another ten years, the spotlight shifts to another English physicist named Joseph Swan. Swan created, by all accounts, a “light bulb” by enclosing carbonized paper filaments in an evacuated glass bulb. Within a few years, he had a working prototype that many overseas in England consider the “first lightbulb”.  

Unfortunately, the lack of a good vacuum and an adequate supply of electricity resulted in a bulb whose lifetime was much too short to be considered an effective producer of light over long periods of time. Swan sat on this invention for another ten years until the early 1870’s when better vacuum pumps became available and in 1878, developed a longer lasting light bulb that was affordable enough to see commercial success.  

Swan’s bulbs were being found in English homes and outdoor fixtures more frequently than his predecessors, and his design was the focus of many impersonators, even in the United States and Canada.  



Along Comes Edison  


See how long it took me to mention Thomas Edison’s involvement? It wasn’t until 1878 that he even started showing up in the light bulb conversation. His research into developing a better version of Swan’s incandescent lamp led to his first patent application for "Improvement in Electric Lights". However, he continued to test several types of material for metal filaments to improve upon his original design and by Nov 4, 1879, he filed another U.S. patent for an electric lamp using "a carbon filament or strip coiled and connected to platina contact wires." 

Both Edison and Joseph Swan brought their inventions forward at almost exactly the same time, across the pond from one another. Swan's patents in Great Britain and Edison’s American counterpart led to the two competing companies merging, with the establishment of the Edison & Swan United Electric Light Company. Known more commonly as "Ediswan", the company sold lamps made with a cellulose filament that Swan had invented in 1881, while the Edison Company continued using bamboo filaments outside of Britain.  

In addition to this, Edison was also going around and buying patents for older versions of the light bulb in an effort to dominate the market and further commercialize and improve upon his ideas. 



Why is Edison the Name we Know? 


To really understand our education and the claim that Edison “invented” the lightbulb, all we need to consider is the time period. In the 1800’s, America was a relatively new country, its independence from England being in 1781. Thomas Edison was the only Amercian name in a long list of inventors and scientists who worked on the light bulb, so to Americans with a newfound sense of patriotism, Edison was crowned as the inventor because of...well, pride! 

Early American’s were still making a name for themselves and looking to be taken seriously as a new nation. So, of course, when an inventor, born and raised in the United States steps forward withs something revolutionary, we would have leapt at the chance to praise him. And while this fact alone is enough to make his name infamous, Edison was also crowned as the man who found the most commercially viable solution for the bulb, as he tinkered with other inventors’ ideas, searching for means of improvement.  


The Shady Side of Thomas Edison 

By all accounts, had America remained under British rule, it’s theorized that Joseph Swan might have been the name we’d be taught when it comes to the true inventor of the lightbulb. In the UK, this is certainly the case, as Swan was knighted by King Edward VII, and awarded the Royal Society's Hughes Medal.  He had also received the highest decoration in France, the Legion of Honour, when he visited the 1881 International Exposition of Electricity, Paris. The exhibition included displays of his inventions, and the city was lit with his electric lighting.  

When Swan partnered with Edison, many regarded the latter as a thief of ideas rather than an inventor, likely due to previous turmoil with a newly birthed America. Truth be told, Edison wasn’t a saint of an inventor by any means.  

His contemporaries regarded Thomas Edison as a lover of the spotlight and the press. He wanted his name on the newest and brightest advancements, and American entrepreneurs tended to look the other way as a means of moving forward in their patriotic glory. So, while he couldn’t invent everything, he could certainly own the patents for most things. 

It's written that he held more than 1,000 patents and made it his mission to improve upon them. He hired people to invent things and then bought out their patents. His workshop in Menlo Park, N.J. was basically a patent factory because it just churned out idea after idea. 


Rivalries in the Electrical Industry  

As Edison expanded his direct current (DC) power delivery system, he received stiff competition from companies installing alternating current (AC) systems, with Nikola Tesla being one of the most prominent names. It’s funny, by all accounts, Tesla and Edison should have been friends! Both men were working toward the same goal of improving upon the lightbulb and the use of electricity in general. They were both incredible thinkers and inventors, sharing similar ideas and work ethics.  

After arriving in the United States, Tesla sought out Edison and began working for him. They worked together for a short time, Tesla helped Edison improve his inventions, but ultimately, they ceased working together, mainly due to their disagreement on electrical currents. 

Rather than work together with Tesla to see if his ideas were viable, Edison instead refused the idea and drove him away. When Tesla found investors who believed in his tech and he began to gain attention and fame, Edison set out to defame and discredit Tesla out of jealousy. To prove that Tesla was wrong, he used his high-voltage systems to demonstrate in public on dogs and other animals that AC was too dangerous and deadly. And while his reasons were valid, his aggressive methods didn’t really earn him the brownie points he wanted, which shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone (Get it...? Shock?). 



After Edison  

With the dawn of the 20th century came an unprecedented opportunity for developers of the newly established incandescent light bulb. Applications were limitless, ranging from the extremely modest (such as bicycle headlamps) to national infrastructure (such as road lighting). The field was open, and the market was soon flooded with manufacturers hoping to cash in on the gold rush of artificial lighting. 

Throughout the 1900’s and even into the 2000’s, efficiency became the buzzword. New technologies were lining up to be the next big thing, and even governments were passing legislation to phase out the less efficient incandescent light bulb for something better. 



Green Energy and the Rise of LED 

With the incandescent light bulb now effectively considered a dinosaur, all eyes fall on LED technology as an environmental cure-all. Globally, people have dabbled with halogen bulbs, CFLs, and other improvements to the incandescent bulb, but according to light bulb manufacturer Philips, LEDs have been the reigning champion for quite some time.  

These bulbs are now considered the norm when it comes to lighting in both residential and commercial spaces. Companies like Sunco Lighting have demonstrated the ways in which LEDs can be utilized across multiple platforms, leading to expanded energy efficiency as well as increased savings. With what feels like universal agreement that there are massive energy savings to be gained with LEDs, the world seems set for spontaneous change in how we illuminate it.   

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