- The story of the invention of the light bulb is not that straightforward, as it involved multiple scientists.
- Thomas Edison didn’t invent the light bulb, but he did play a major role in improving and commercializing the technology.
- Joseph Wilson Swan, Henry Woodward, and Mathew Evans made significant contributions to this invention.
If you are reading this in a living room or library, the chances are good that above you is hanging one of the biggest inventions in history – The Light Bulb.
In school, you have been taught that it was Thomas Edison who invented the light bulb. Our science textbooks say Edison created the first practical light bulb in October 1879. But this is not the complete truth. It wouldn’t be fair to give him the full credit of this revolutionary technology.
Edison was neither the first nor the only inventor trying to build the incandescent light bulb. In fact, there were twenty inventors from across the world who had drafted different patents on the same idea.
So Who Actually Came Up With The Light Bulb?
Well, it’s a complicated question, and it certainly can’t be answered in a single line.
The story of this incredible invention begins long before the first commercial success of the light bulb in 1879. To better explain this story, we have made a timeline of major breakthroughs in the development of the incandescent light bulb.
1761: Ebenezer Kinnersley showed for the first time wire can be heated to incandescence.
1802: Humphry Davy created an incandescent light by passing the current through a thin platinum strip. The current was generated from a 2,000-cell battery. However, the light lasted for a very short time and wasn’t bright enough.
1835: James Bowman Lindsay invented a constant electric light that could enable people to read books from a distance of 45 centimeters. However, he didn’t come up with a better design any further.
Marcellin Jobard | Image credit: Wikimedia
1838: Marcellin Jobard used a carbon filament to create an incandescent light bulb enclosed in a small vacuum area.
1840: In order to increase longevity, Warren de la Rue passed the current through a coiled platinum filament that was enclosed in a vacuum tube. Although the idea worked great, the high cost of platinum kept it from being a commercial success.
1841: The first patent of the incandescent bulb (consisting of platinum wires enclosed in a vacuum lamp) was granted to Frederick de Moleyns.
1845: John W. Starr used carbon filaments to build an incandescent light bulb. He was granted a patent for this invention, but he died a year later, and his creation never saw the light of the day.
1859: Moses Gerrish Farmer used a platinum filament to create electric incandescent light bulbs. A few years later, Thomas Edison bought his patented technology.
1872: Alexander Lodygin used two small carbon rods (hermetically sealed in a glass) to build an incandescent light bulb. The current could pass from one rod to another, and the glass was filled with nitrogen. He acquired patents for incandescent lamps made of different filaments, including tungsten, molybdenum, and chromium filaments.
1874: Henry Woodward and Mathew Evans invented the bulb that contained carbon rods mounted in a cylindrical glass filled with nitrogen gas. They weren’t able to commercialize their invention and thus sold their patent to Thoman Edison in 1879.
Carbon filament lamps darkening the insides of their glass bulbs
1878: Joseph Wilson Swan had been working on his own version of the light bulb since 1850. With the arrival of better vacuum pumps in the 1870s, Swan’s prototype became better: he enclosed a treated cotton thread inside a vacuum glass, which eventually removed the issue of early bulb blackening and increased its lifespan to 13.5 hours. He acquired a British patent in 1880.
What Thomas Edison Did?
Edison improved the existing ideas: he invented other components-generators, distribution systems, and organized companies to distribute them.
Edison began working on a practical incandescent bulb in 1878. He tested different types of materials for metal filaments to improve the existing design. In 1879, he filed a U.S. patent for an electric lamp that contained a carbon filament or strip coiled connected to electric conductors.
Between 1878 and 1880, Edison and this team rigorously tested more than 3,000 designs. He hired many engineers who tested over 6,000 plants to find the perfect carbon that would burn the longest.
The team finally settled for a carbonized bamboo filament. It could last over 1,200 hours, and was reliable enough to be manufactured on a commercial scale. In 1880, Edison Electric Light Company started marketing its new product, and this was the beginning of commercially produced light bulbs.
An original Edison light bulb from 1879 | Wikimedia Commons
During the same period, Joseph Wilson Swan was also working on his light bulb designs and founded an electrical lighting company in England. He joined forces with Edison to form Edison-Swan United Electric Company, which later became one of the world’s largest manufacturers of light bulbs.
In the same year (1880), Edison established the Edison Electric Illuminating Company in New York. It was funded by an American financier and banker J.P. Morgan. The company developed the first electrical generating stations to power newly developed light bulbs.
Edison carbon filament bulbs in the early 1880s | Wikimedia Commons
Edison Electric later merged with the corporations of two other inventors, Albon Man and William Sawyer, to form General Electric, which is one of the biggest corporations in the world to this day.
In 2019, General Electric ranked among the Fortune 500 as the 21st-largest company in the United States by gross revenue.
One can’t deny the fact that Edison was very much ahead of his time. He did not invent the light bulb, but he did develop a safe, affordable, and durable incandescent light bulb that could produce light for hundreds of hours.
Edit (September 2020)
The former vice president, Joe Biden, made a controversial statement saying that “a black man invented the light bulb, not a white guy named Edison.” He was referring to Lewis Howard Latimer, who worked in the Edison Electric Light Company in New York, as a draftsman in patent litigation on electric lights.
L.H Latimer | Wikimedia
Latimer did not actually invent the light bulb, but he did improve the technique for producing carbon filaments that are used in lightbulbs. In January 1882, he received a patent for the ‘Process of Manufacturing Carbons.’
In 1890, he wrote a book titled ‘Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System.’ He also managed the installation of public light bulbs throughout London, New York, Montreal, and Philadelphia.