What Is The History Of The Electric Light Bulb ?

August 02, 2016

electric light bulb

Ever imagine going back to the medieval centuries and live without electricity? Being one of the most important conveniences of the modern life, we often disregard electricity. We forgot how often electric lights bring comfort, safety, and in some cases, beauty to our lives.

Electricity remains as one of, if not the most important inventions of humanity.

The long history of electricity began with the invention of the light bulb, and it will always be associated with one person's name: Thomas Alva Edison.

Edison was often credited with inventing the incandescent light bulb in 1879, but, unknown to most of us, he was hardly the first person who invented electric light.
Before Edison patented his light bulb in 1879 and 1880, over 20 similar inventions are made.

A Rocky Start

The first electric light invention recorded in history was in 1802 by Humphrey Davy, and as many great inventions are, it was nothing short of an accident. Davy was an inventor for the then very powerful electric battery, and he accidentally made a piece of carbon glow when connected to his battery.

The carbon lamp then was deemed the Electric Arc lamp. However, it was far too bright for practical use, and the invention didn't meet a commercial success.

In the seven decades gap between Davy and Edison, many "light bulbs" designs were invented,  but none of them was practical enough for widespread use.

The closest thing to a breakthrough came in 1840, when Warren de la Rue, a British inventor, invented the vacuum-tube concept we all know nowadays.

De la Rue put a platinum filament inside a vacuum-tube, and with the high melting point of platinum, his invention indeed was a success. However, the high cost of platinum then (and now) prevents the design from being a mass production.

World's First Light bulb Factory

Wait, we jump straight to Edison now? Not at all. Again, contrary to popular belief, the world's first ever light bulb manufacturing company was not made by Edison and was not built in the U.S.

Joseph Wilson Swan, another Englishman, almost perfected De la Rue's design in 1850. He used carbon paper filaments instead of platinum, enclosing it inside an evacuated glass vacuum. By 1860, he had a working prototype.

However the inadequate supply of electricity back then, and poor quality of vacuum manufacturing caused the short lifetime of the bulb. However, he didn't initially give up his pursuit for electric light.

By 1878, a year earlier than Edison's patent, he finally perfected his design with a longer-lasting bulb and eliminated the blackening issue with his cotton thread method.

He began installing light bulbs in houses and public venues, including his good friend, Sir William Armstrong's personal residence. His major breakthrough, however, came when he lit up London's famous theater The Savoy in 1881.

In the same year, he formed The Swan Electric Light Company Ltd at Benwell, Newcastle. By 1881, Swan is responsible for both the world's first light bulb commercial manufacturer and the world's first public building lit by electricity.

The First American Light Bulb

Finally, we're going to talk about Edison, right? Sorry to disappoint again.

The first light bulb in the American continent was developed in 1874 by two Canadians, Henry Woodward, and Matthew Evans. They filled the glass cylinders with nitrogen, using carbon rods and electrodes to produce the light.

They successfully filed a Canadian patent and a U.S patent, attempting to commercially mass produced the lamp. But, although their design was fully functional and economically viable, they failed to commercialize it, finally selling their U.S. patent to Edison.

Thomas Alva Edison

Finally, we came to Edison's story.

What made the difference for him? Did his invention really surpass all the others mentioned? Or as previously mentioned, could it be because of his business sense and marketing strategy?

Here is the full story.

Edison began working on the incandescent lamp in 1878, with the precise aim to tackle the issues of the short lifetime, high electrical current requirement, and high manufacturing costs of earlier inventions.

We shouldn't underestimate Edison's technical prowess, as he was indeed the first one to tackle the economic issue of the bulb by making the electric current requirement lower. He envisioned that the lamps should have high resistance and low voltage (around 120-volt).

Edison formed the infamous Edison Electric Light Company in 1878, based in New York. We should note that the company was backed by very powerful financiers, including J.P Morgan and the then powerful Vanderbilt family.

After many experiments, his carbon filament lamp was finally successful in achieving its economic viability and long lifetime. He filed for a U.S. Patent in November 1979.

The history after that recorded a lot of legal battles over the patents. As mentioned, Woodrow-Evans sold their patent to Edison. To avoid a legal battle with Joseph Swan, which as mentioned, got a British patent the year before, they created a joint company called Ediswan for the British Market.

Interested in the secret history of the patent war surrounding the light bulb? Check out this interesting article by IPWatchDog.

However, his contribution didn't stop there. In 1880, after he controlled the legal patents for light bulbs, he shifted focus to electrical distribution. Ever wondered why the U.S. used 120-volt electricity? Edison Illuminating Company was responsible for the distribution.

Morale of the story? Edison possessed an important point of view when others didn't: Economical viability. His powerful financial backers certainly helped him in the patent battles.The most important point: He marketed himself and his invention so well his legacy lasted two centuries until today.

Still not satisfied? Here are the top 8 things you might not know about Edison from Energy.gov.

Modern Light Bulbs

After Edison's success, the light bulb has undergone major developments:

  • 1906: General Electric Company patented tungsten filaments. Edison recognized tungsten's viability for filaments but the technology in his days was not capable of its manufacturing. By 1910, the tungsten filaments were mass produced.
  • 1920s: The Frosted light bulb, power beam bulbs for vehicular headlamps, and neon was invented.
  • 1930s: Early development of fluorescent lamp
  • 1950s: The birth of halogen bulbs and quartz glass bulbs
  • 1980s: Metal halide was invented, decreasing the wattage requirement of light bulbs significantly
  • 1990s: Compact fluorescent bulb made their debut, major development in LED technology making it the best choice nowadays

Looking Ahead- The Future of Bulbs


We're studying the past, after all, to create a better future. The electricity industry nowadays is still true to Edison's vision: Better economical viability. A Recent breakthrough in LED technology played a very significant role, decreasing the manufacturing, operating, and replacement costs of the modern light bulb.

Recent research, ironically, suggested that incandescent -the very first- bulb might be the future. According to recent MIT journal published in Nature Nanotechnology, nanotechnology could be used to recycle the waste energy, making it even more efficient than the current LED bulbs.

Interesting twist? Let's go back to the future.

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