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Light bulb - Invention - History

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Contrary to popular belief, Edison didn't "invent" the light bulb, but rather he improved upon a 50-year-old idea.

1809 -  Humphrey Davy, an English chemist, invented the first electric light. Davy connected two wires to a battery and attached a charcoal strip between the other ends of the wires. The charged carbon glowed making the first arc lamp.

1820 - Warren De la Rue enclosed a platinum coil in an evacuated tube and passed an electric current through it. His lamp design was worked but the cost of the precious metal platinum made this an impossible invention for wide-spread use.

1835 - James Bowman Lindsay demonstrated constant electric lighting system using a prototype light bulb.

1850 - Edward Shepard invented an electrical incandescent arc lamp using a charcoal filament. Joseph Wilson Swan started working with carbonized paper filaments the same year.

1854 - Henricg Globel, a German watchmaker, invented the first true light bulb. He used a carbonized bamboo filament placed inside a glass bulb.

1875 - Herman Sprengel invented the mercury vacuum pump making it possible to develop a practical electric light bulb. Making a really good vacuum inside the bulb possible.

1875 - Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans patented a light bulb.

1878 - Sir Joseph Wilson Swan (1828-1914), an English physicist, was the first person to invent a practical and longer-lasting electric light bulb (13.5 hours). Swan used a carbon fiber filament derived from cotton.

1879 - Thomas Alva Edison invented a carbon filament that burned for forty hours. Edison placed his filament in an oxygen less bulb. (Edison evolved his designs for the light bulb based on the 1875 patent he purchased from inventors, Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans.)

1880 - Edison continued to improved his light bulb until it could last for over 1200 hours using a bamboo-derived filament.

1894 - Nikola Tesla  patents another incandescent lamp. He then produces Neon type and invents HID prototypes. Metal Halide and High pressure sodium. See Patent

1903 - Willis Whitnew invented a filament that would not make the inside of a light bulb turn dark. It was a metal-coated carbon filament (a predecessor to the tungsten filament).

1906 - The General Electric Company were the first to patent a method of making tungsten filaments for use in incandescent light bulbs. The filaments were costly.

1910 - William David Coolidge (1873-1975) invented an improved method  of making tungsten filaments. The tungsten filament outlasted all other types of filaments and Coolidge made the costs practical.

1925 - The first frosted light bulbs were produced.

1987 - James Highgate - Hiett Designs Las Vegas - Auto Neon was developed - Undercar Neon.

1991 - Philips invented a light bulb that lasts 60,000 hours. The bulb uses magnetic induction.


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In 1879, using lower current electricity, a small carbonized filament, and an improved vacuum inside the globe, he was able to produce a reliable, long-lasting source of light. The idea of electric lighting was not new, and a number of people had worked on, and even developed forms of electric lighting. But up to that time, nothing had been developed that was remotely practical for home use. Edison's eventual achievement was inventing not just an incandescent electric light, but also an electric lighting system that contained all the elements necessary to make the incandescent light practical, safe, and economical. After one and a half years of work, success was achieved when an incandescent lamp with a filament of carbonized sewing thread burned for thirteen and a half hours. 

Electrical Pioneers of America Their Own Words: Bell, De Forest, Edison, Franklin, Henry, Steinmetz, Tesla, Thomson, and Westinghouse Electrical Pioneers of America Their Own Words: Bell, De Forest, Edison, Franklin, Henry, Steinmetz, Tesla, Thomson, and Westinghouse

There are a couple of other interesting things about the invention of the light bulb: While most of the attention was on the discovery of the right kind of filament that would work, Edison actually had to invent a total of seven system elements that were critical to the practical application of electric lights as an alternative to the gas lights that were prevalent in that day. 

These were the development of: 

  1. the parallel circuit, 
  2. a durable light bulb, 
  3. an improved dynamo, 
  4. the underground conductor network, 
  5. the devices for maintaining constant voltage, 
  6. safety fuses and insulating materials, and 
  7. light sockets with on-off switches. 

Before Edison could make his millions, every one of these elements had to be invented and then, through careful trial and error, developed into practical, reproducible components. The first public demonstration of the Thomas Edison's incandescent lighting system was in December 1879, when the Menlo Park laboratory complex was electrically lighted. Edison spent the next several years creating the electric industry.

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Replica of original lightbulb - patent # 223,898The modern electric utility industry began in the 1880s. It evolved from gas and electric carbon-arc commercial and street lighting systems. On September 4, 1882, the first commercial power station, located on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan, went into operation providing light and electricity power to customers in a one square mile area; the electric age had begun. Thomas Edison's Pearl Street electricity generating station introduced four key elements of a modern electric utility system. It featured reliable central generation, efficient distribution, a successful end use (in 1882, the light bulb), and a competitive price. A model of efficiency for its time, Pearl Street used one-third the fuel of its predecessors, burning about 10 pounds of coal per kilowatt hour, a "heat rate" equivalent of about 138,000 Btu per kilowatt hour. Initially the Pearl Street utility served 59 customers for about 24 cents per kilowatt hour. In the late 1880s, power demand for electric motors brought the industry from mainly nighttime lighting to 24-hour service and dramatically raised electricity demand for transportation and industry needs. By the end of the 1880s, small central stations dotted many U.S. cities; each was limited to a few blocks area because of transmission inefficiencies of direct current (dc).

The success of his electric light brought Thomas Edison to new heights of fame and wealth, as electricity spread around the world. His various electric companies continued to grow until in 1889 they were brought together to form Edison General Electric. Despite the use of Edison in the company title however, he never controlled this company. The tremendous amount of capital needed to develop the incandescent lighting industry had necessitated the involvement of investment bankers such as J.P. Morgan. When Edison General Electric merged with its leading competitor Thompson-Houston in 1892, Edison was dropped from the name, and the company became simply General Electric.

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