Who invented the light bulb? History of including Thomas Edison.

History of light bulbs, who invented, Thomas Edison.


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Who invented the light bulb?

You might think this is an easy question to answer, and a lot of people would say "Thomas Edison" – except it wasn’t. And although Edison was a very good inventor, he really didn’t invent this one – but he did make a commercial version and more. So here’s how it happened:

Early light bulbs
The idea of the electric light can be ascribed to Sir Humphrey Davy when, in 1802, he demonstrated the creation of light by passing a current through a thin strip of platinum. The advantage of platinum is that it has an extremely high melting point so can generate the heat and light without melting. However it wasn’t very bright and it didn’t last very long. Having demonstrated the principle Davy went on to create the first arc lamp in 1809 which is light generated by electricity arcing across a gap – like a constant flash of lightning.

The next time the electric light appeared was, apparently, in 1835 when the Scotsman, James Bowman Lindsay, demonstrated a light that had enough power to read by. However as far as he was concerned, having developed it sufficiently, he moved on to other things. It was Warren de la Rue, a British scientist, who in 1840 put the light emitting platinum coil in a vacuum and so slowed the oxidation process and gave a bulb that would last much longer. Unfortunately platinum was very expensive meaning the device could not be developed commercially.


A year later, in 1841, another Englishman, Frederick de Moleyns, was awarded a British patent for his design using powdered charcoal. In 1845, John Wellington Starr, an American was awarded a patent for his version using carbon filaments. He died shortly afterwards. Ten years later, 1855, a Frenchman, Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, demonstrated his light bulbs in Blois.

One to ignore is the German-American Heinrich Göbel who claimed he’d invented the fully working light bulb (using the same design as Edison’s final working version) in 1854. The person who actually blew the glass in the 1880s proved Göbel to be a liar.

The commercial light bulb
Joseph Wilson Swan was a British chemist and physicist. He began working with carbonised paper filaments in a glass vacuum bulb in 1850 and by 1860 he had a good method working but it did not last long enough to be commercially viable because the vacuum wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t until ten years later when better vacuum pumps became available that he continued his work. He acquired a patent in 1878 with a method that used filament made from a carbon rod – though he preferred the carbon fibre approach because a thinner filament requires less power to make it glow.
However his rod design was sufficient to make a commercial light bulb and in the early 1880s he had started a company and was installing his Swan light bulbs in people’s homes.

Meanwhile, in Canada, Henry Woodrow and Matthew Evans filed and acquired both Canadian and US patents in 1874. They were using a carbon filament but failed to commercialise their design.

This, finally, is where Thomas Edison enters the story. He liked the approach of Woodrow and Evans and bought their patents for $5000. However, as the story goes, he did not have the money he needed to develop their ideas into a commercial design. So he claimed that he actually did have a working design and needed investment money to build the factory to produce it. Then used the investment to develop a commercial design which he patented in 1878. His next patent in 1880 had various designs for the filament but it wasn’t until several months later that he finally discovered that a filament made of carbonised bamboo would last for 1200 hours.

Once Edison had proved that long-lasting filaments could be made it was a virtual free-for-all, everyone and his dog was working on designs that would last longer. Major players were Hiram S. Maxim who started his own company to sell light bulbs, and his employee Lewis Latimer, who together developed what we would generally recognise as the modern light bulb.

Edison vs Swan
When Edison tried to export his ideas to Britain he found that Swan was already there and when Swan successfully sued Edison they came to an agreement and combined their technologies creating the Edison and Swan United Electric Company, which later became Ediswan and was finally absorbed by Thorn Lighting Ltd. Swan eventually sold all his Ediswan interests to Edison and sold his US patents to the Brush Electric company. Which is why no one remembers him.

Edison had trouble over his patents because they were based on someone else’s "prior art" however he eventually won out in 1889.

Why is Edison remembered as the "inventor of the light bulb"? Primarily because, as a very commercially minded inventor, he didn’t just develop a working light bulb; he realised that a whole infra-structure was needed to support it and he designed that as well – the complete electricity distribution system needed.

Final developments
The tungsten filament was invented in 1906 by the General Electric Company, but fully commercialised 1910 by William David Coolidge. In 1924 Marvin Pipkin invented the "pearl" bulb to diffuse the light being emitted and make it friendlier, and in 1947 he patented the method for layering silica on to the inside of the bulb.

So the final answer to the question "Who invented the light bulb?" is: Lots of people.


Last updated August 13, 2007 6:00 PM