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The History of the Incandescent Lightbulb

Dec 23, 2013 | by Wendy Weinert

When the history of the incandescent lightbulb, the crux of modern (lighting), is brought up, our minds typically jump right to Thomas Edison. He was the one who patented the first long-lasting, reliable lightbulb in 1880. What you may not realize is that the full story of the evolution of (lighting) actually began in the early 1800s. Edison may be the most famous to experiment with lightbulbs, but he was by no means the only one to do so.

In 1809, it was an English chemist named Humphrey Davy who began the quest for a more efficient (lighting) system. He created the first arc lamp, and, in effect, the first electric light, by running a battery charge through a strip of charcoal, which produced a bright, intense light. A few years later, in 1820, a French inventor named Warren De la Rue created the first attempt at what we know as a lightbulb by encasing a coil of platinum in a tube and passing electricity through it. Unfortunately, the cost of platinum was much too high for De la Rue's design to be commercially feasible, and so the quest for a commercial lightbulb continued.

In 1835, the Scottish inventor James Lindsay apparently created a working electric lamp that allowed him to read a book by its light. However, Lindsay did little to document his work or his claim, so the next major development towards modern (lighting) came in 1850 from Edward Shepard, who created an arc lamp much like Davy's. Instead of a charcoal strip, he substituted a charcoal filament. 1854 saw the filament idea expanded further by Henrich Globel, who created the first actual lightbulb by placing a carbonized bamboo filament into a protective bulb made of glass. The problem still existed that there was no reliable way to vacuum out the inside of a glass container, which was critical for the performance of the lightbulb, until 1875, when Herman Sprengel created a mercury vacuum pump.

1875 was also the year that the first lightbulb was patented – not by Thomas Edison, but by Henry Woodward, an entrepreneur from Toronto, and his partner Matthew Evans. The invention was clever, but Woodward and Evans lacked the capital necessary to put their invention into production. Edison, who had a number of industries behind him and $50,000 to invest, bought the right to their patent and began adding his own tweaks. The first cotton-fiber filament was used by Sir Joseph Wilson Swan in 1878. His lightbulb was more practical than any offered before, but it was Edison who, in 1879, discovered a carbon filament that could burn for a staggering forty hours. The next year, he had his invention burning for over 1200 hours with the substitution of a bamboo filament. Globel was understandably upset at having his invention upstaged by Edison, so in 1893 he took the American inventor to court to set the record straight. The court agreed with Globel's prior claim, and it is Globel who is officially credited as the inventor of the electric incandescent lamp.

Lightbulbs were sold commercially as early as 1902, using an osmium filament. The scarcity of osmium ended up inflating the prices, and osmium lightbulbs became impractical and expensive. The lightbulb continued to grow and develop in the hands of Willis Whitnew, who, in 1903, discovered a filament that prevented the inside of the bulb from blackening. The General Electric Company registered their patent in 1906 for creating tungsten filaments, which, while more effective than the earlier osmium models, were still highly costly. Salvation came in the form of William Coolidge, the inventor of the x-ray. He refined and improved the existing method of making tungsten filaments, which made production more practical and resulted in a finer, longer-lasting product as early as 1910.

Frosted lightbulbs became popular in 1925, as they produced a softer, gentler form of light, and in 1930, lightbulbs were being used in flash photography to produce a picture with controlled (lighting). 1960 saw the advent of halogen incandescent lamps, and in 1991, the Dutch company Philips produced a magnetic lightbulb that is capable of lasting for 60,000 hours – fifty times longer than Edison's 1880 creation. The incandescent lightbulb has a history that would astound most, and sadly, the majority of it is lost behind the glory haze that surrounds Edison's name. However, the work that was put into its development still shines through, and it is exciting to consider how the lightbulb might yet evolve in the years to come.

For more information on the history of the incandescent light and its various inventors, please feel free to pursue the links below.