The history of lighting is a long, interesting story that most people get completely wrong. For example, most people incorrectly think Thomas Edison is the creator of the light bulb, but he wasn’t the first inventor to try to harness power for the sake of illumination. In fact, there are reports that at least 20 different predecessors before Edison created a version of a light bulb before Edison became the grandfather of illumination we think of him as today. Let’s take a look at a few key points in the history of light bulbs in greater detail.
While most people think of Edison as the inventor of the light bulb, there were several great minds that paved the way for the result he would later achieve in this area. Here are a few of the big advancements Edison would draw on to create the model we still use today.
Humphry Davy created the first electrical light bulb in 1802. This type of light bulb was called an electric arc lamp because it was connected to a battery by way of wires connected to a piece of carbon. The carbon would then catch the spark of energy from the charge and create illumination. However, it wasn’t able to be sustained so it was only a short burst of illumination. It was still important though, because it laid the groundwork for what would become the light bulb we all know today.
In 1840, Warren de la Rue reached a new milestone in this area with his method of placing a coiled platinum filament inside a vacuum tube and then running a current through it to produce illumination. While it sustained illumination longer than the previous method of using carbon, the high cost of platinum made it still unusable for everyday use or further commercial development.
Following this same method of using a vacuum, Joseph Wilson Swan created the first glass light bulb essentially by way of enclosing carbonized paper filaments in 1850. His model used the best advancements of previous designs without the use of expensive platinum, but it lacked the ability to sustain the illumination for a long enough time to make it truly beneficial. Swan spent almost 30 years refining his invention in an attempt to create a higher performing vacuum component to create sustained light, and in 1878 he switched to a cotton thread instead of the previously used carbonized paper to help sustain the light longer.
Thomas Edison Changes the Scene
While all of these previous attempts were considered failures at the time in the race to create the first commercially viable light bulb, they were also the failures that paved the way to success. With every flaw in the design, the next generation of inventors inched closer and closer to the prototype that would revolutionize the world. For instance, drawing on the attempts of previous inventors, two Canadian colleagues, Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans, used carbon rods which held electrodes enclosed in glass. The use of metal rods and nitrogen were a step in the right direction, but the design remained unrealized until 1879.
The turning point in lighting history would come in 1879 when Thomas Edison bought the patent from Woodward and Evans. While it would be tempting to say that all Edison did was copy the work of others that came before him, it would be a great disrespect to his achievements. The simple fact of the matter is that other people did achieve illumination prior to Edison, but it was never sustainable illumination. Edison would end up creating multiple patents on his designs after a few failures of his own in a search for the best in sustainable illumination. For example, Edison played around with prototypes using several different types of filament materials, including cotton, linen, woods, and metals, to find the solution that would work best not just as illumination as his previous inventors focused on, but more importantly, which one would allow for the longest illumination. Edison and his team would eventually realize that a carbonized bamboo filament offered the best result, up to 1200 hours of illumination, and would patent that idea in 1880 to begin commercially producing the invention for the use of the general public.
From there, Edison’s company, The General Electric Company, would continue to play a role in shaping modern lighting. For example, they introduced tungsten filaments which would hold the charge more efficiently to allow for longer life spans on light bulbs. They would also pave the way for other advances later on.
The light bulb continued to evolve with the help of various inventions in the commercial production of bulbs. For instance, the 1950s would see the creation of halogen bulbs. The creation of low wattage metal halide would come about in the 1980s. The truth is that any type of bulb using filaments of any type has had a long journey dating all the way back to Humphrey Davy’s failed attempt in 1802 and the many attempts leading up to Edison himself. While LED lighting, which is free from a filament, continues to revolutionize the lighting landscape, and advancements with filament based lighting has slowed down almost to a standstill, there is no denying the basic light bulb with a filament operation was the groundwork needed to reach where we are today.