The First Light Bulb
A Brief History
The electric light bulb is one of the everyday objects that we rarely pay attention to, even though it has a complex history. It is thought that Thomas Edison invented the first light bulb in 1879, though scientists and inventors had been exploring how to create incandescent light bulbs for several decades before Edison.
What is Incandescent Light?
The first light bulbs were all “incandescent” light bulbs, meaning they were created using a glass bulb or lamp which had all the air sucked out of it to make a vacuum (a space with very little or no air) and in this glass bulb there has to be a fragile piece of metal (also known as a filament) held by an electrical circuit. The wire is heated up and starts to glow to create light.
Who Invented the Light Bulb? – Early Explorations
As far back as 1802, a scientist named Humphry Davy from England invented a simple electric light. He experimented with electricity and created a circuit with a small battery. The carbon glowed when he connected wires to his battery with a piece of carbon between the cables. This circuit became known as the Electric Arc Lamp, but it burned too brightly and quickly for it to be used in homes.
Other Attempts to Create Electric Light
In the decades following Davy’s attempt at creating the first light bulb, other inventors also had a go at making light bulbs. Still, unfortunately, none of their designs were able to overcome all the problems that Humphry Davy first noticed. These attempts sometimes muddy the water when answering the question of “who invented the first lightbulb,” as technically, the standard answer of Thomas Edison is not strictly true.
Inventors such as Humphry Davy and Warren de la Rue had already had a go at creating their light bulbs, but these attempts were not as sophisticated as Thomas Edison’s design, which was both cheap and long-lasting. Some of the most notable attempts to create a light bulb were:
Humphry Davy, an English chemist, invented the first electric light in 1802. After experimenting with electricity, he developed an electric battery that made the carbon glow and produced light when he connected wires to the battery and a piece of carbon. His invention was known as the Electric Arc lamp. However, the light did not burn long, making it impractical for commercial use.
Warren de la Rue
In 1840, British scientist Warren de la Rue created a circuit similar to Davy. He used electrical wires and a battery, but instead of carbon, he used a filament of platinum coiled up very tightly. He put this circuit into a glass tube and created a vacuum inside so the platinum could not react with the air. This electric lamp burned for much longer than Davy’s design, but platinum was costly.
Joseph Wilson Swan
In the 1850s, a physicist named Joseph Wilson Swan experimented with different glass chambers, vacuums, and metals to use as filaments. He managed to create several ‘working prototypes’ but was never able to create a light bulb that was both long-lasting and cheap.
A young Thomas Edison.
When was the light bulb invented? — Swan vs Edison
One of the major problems hindering the progress of the invention of the light bulb was the cost. The early light bulbs were expensive, therefore, not practical for commercial use. Joseph Swan took it upon himself to tackle this issue of cost. The English chemist used carbonized paper filaments instead of platinum filaments in his light bulb, which was much more cost-effective. Swan received a patent for his design in 1878 and demonstrated a working lamp a year later in February 1879.
However, things were not all smooth sailing for Swan. The vacuum pumps used in his lightbulb design were not overly efficient at the time. This meant that while he could use his light bulb for a simple demonstration, it was still unsuitable for everyday use.
One person who saw the flaw in Swan’s design was Thomas Edison. Edison saw that a thin filament with a high electrical resistance was a much better option, as it only needed a small current to make it glow. Edison used this idea to create his design, which he demonstrated in a light bulb in December 1879. Swan took Edison’s improvements and applied them to his light bulb. With this, he formed his own electrical lighting company in England.
Edison sued Swan for patent infringement because his design had been stolen. However, Swan’s patent was a strong claim. Eventually, Edison and Swan joined together to form Edison-Swan United, the world’s largest manufacturer of light bulbs.
Swan was not Edison’s only competitor in the fight to invent the light bulb. Two Canadian inventors, Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans, filed their patent for an electric lamp in 1874. This lamp contained different-sized carbon rods held between electrodes in a glass cylinder filled with nitrogen. Woodward and Evans attempted to sell their lights for commercial use but were unsuccessful. They ended up selling their patent to Edison in 1879.
Edison went from strength to strength with his light bulb and soon founded his own company, the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York, in 1880. The company, supported by a selection of wealthy investors, built the first electrical generating stations to supply power to electrical systems and newly patented light bulbs. The first official electrical generating station opened in September 1882 on Pearl Street in Lower Manhattan, New York.
By this point, many of Edison’s competitors had given up on their missions and merged their companies with his to form General Electric.
The First Practical Incandescent Light Bulb
So, what gave Edison the edge over his competitors in becoming the first person to invent the light bulb? The key was in the practicality of his design. Edison created an inexpensive and practical light bulb, making it ideal for commercial use. However, this didn’t come to him immediately, as Edison is reported to have tested more than 3,000 light bulb designs between 1878 and 1880.
In November 1879, Edison filed a patent for his electric lamp made with carbon filament and various other materials, including cotton, linen, and wood. Edison spent the following year sourcing the perfect filament for his light bulb. This process involved testing over 6,000 plants to see which material would burn the longest. Eventually, Edison and his team discovered that a carbonized bamboo filament could burn for over 1,200 hours. Therefore, this was selected as the filament for Edison’s light bulbs until more durable materials replaced it in the 1880s and early 1900s.
While we think of Thomas Edison as the first person who invented the light bulb, his work was not done alone. Edison was helped by a team of talented researchers and inventors who helped him further his career. In 1882, one of Edison’s researchers, Lewis Howard Latimer, developed and patented a much more efficient manufacturing of carbon filaments. Moreover, in 1903, Willis R. Whitney, an American chemist and founder of the General Electric Company research laboratory, came up with another exciting design. Whitney invented a treatment for the carbon filaments that would allow them to burn brightly without creating dark marks on the insides of their glass bulbs. This design was a massive step in creating the light bulbs that we use now.
This design was improved upon further by William David Coolidge, an American physicist with General Electric, in 1910. Coolidge built upon General Electric’s method of manufacturing tungsten filaments. Tungsten has the highest melting point of all of the chemical elements and thus is the ideal material for light bulb filaments. Tungsten is still the primary material used in incandescent bulb filaments today.
A Timeline for Incandescent Light
- 1845 – John W. Starr patents incandescent light bulbs with carbon filaments.
- 1850 – Joseph Swan begins work on a light bulb.
- 1860 – Swan patents a partial vacuum, carbon filament incandescent lamp.
- 1872 – Alexander Lodygin patents an incandescent light bulb with tungsten filaments.
- 1874 – Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans patent lamps.
- 1878 – Joseph Swan demonstrates a lamp with a carbon rod.
- 1879 – Woodward and Evans sell their light patent to Thomas Edison.
- 1879 – Edison improves carbon filament lamp, developing a practical incandescent lamp,
- 1880- Edison patents an electricity distribution system.
- 1906 – With improvements in machinery, the carbon filaments were replaced with tungsten for longer light bulb life.
- The 1920s – The first light bulbs with frosted glass and neon lighting were produced.
- The 1930s – one-time flashbulbs are invented for photography using Edison’s methods.
- The 1940s – The first ‘soft light’ bulbs are created for homes.
- The 1990s – ‘Long life’ bulbs are introduced to homes.
The Future of the First Light Bulb
Unfortunately, incandescent light bulbs are very inefficient – only about 10% of the electricity is turned into light, and the rest is lost to heat. Nevertheless, because they are easy and cheap, incandescent bulbs are still widely used.
Although, with the advent of the first LED light bulbs, there has been more legislation from world governments to phase out incandescent light bulbs and replace them with LED light bulbs which are very energy efficient.
What Problems did the Invention of the Light Bulb Solve?
The electric light bulb is often credited as being the most important invention since man discovered fire! It completely transformed society. People could stay up longer, the work day was extended, socializing in the cities after dark became more popular, and homes became safer as they no longer relied on fire for light.
The light bulb also brought about even more inventions, such as electrical appliances, the phonograph, and other light bulb versions. As well as this, electrical power grids expanded because of the light bulb. The largest of these was built in 1895 in Niagara Falls, making it the world’s first power station.