The History of the Incandescent Lightbulb

The standard answer to “Who invented the electric light bulb?” is Thomas Edison. However, Thomas Edison did not necessarily invent the light bulb but merely invented an improved version that was commercially viable. Beyond that, Edison put together a system of generation and distribution that made the provision of electricity to use the light bulb feasible.

The earliest successful experiments in creating light using electricity occurred as early as 1802. In that year, Humphry Davy, in Great Britain, applied an electric current to a strip of platinum to generate light. Obviously light bulbs made of rare platinum would not be practical, and this experiment did not generate enough light and it burnt out fairly quickly. But Davy showed that making light from electricity was possible. Davy went on to create a carbon arc lamp which, after further development, could be considered the first electric light.

Three decades later, a Scotsman, James Lindsay was reported to demonstrate a basic electric light. Lindsay failed to follow through on his efforts and did not document his discoveries.

As early as 1840 Warren de la Rue demonstrated an incandescent light of the same basic design, as Edison was later to perfect. His design was based on a platinum wire in a vacuum tube. The light worked well but the cost of platinum made development impractical.

A patent was actually granted to an American, John W. Starr, for an incandescent light using carbon filaments. Other than what was written in the patent documents very little is known about his efforts since he died shortly after being awarded the patent.

Further developments took place throughout Europe and America over the next few decades. A Frenchman demonstrated incandescent light bulbs in 1851and his bulbs are still on display. An American, A. N. Lodygin, received a patent for an incandescent light bulb in 1874.

Joseph Swan was working to develop a vacuum tube based light bulb as early as 1850. He had a working model by 1860 but was unable to get a reasonable life with an adequate supply of light due to an inability to generate a good vacuum. Working with Charles Stearn, an expert on vacuum systems, he was able to get better life out of his bulbs and received a patent for his developments in 1880. Swan actually started manufacturing and installing electric lights in England commercially that year.

Two Canadians developed bulbs using carbon rods and received a Canadian patent in 1874. They were unable to market their bulbs, however, and ended up selling their patent to Thomas Edison.

Thomas Edison, himself, didn’t start working on electric lights until 1878. The story is that he experimented with numerous different materials for filaments until late in 1879 he was able to make a light that would last nearly 14 hours using carbon. Later he discovered that carbonized bamboo filaments could last as long as 1200 hours.

It wasn’t until 1910 that William Coolidge created the modern light bulb using tungsten filaments. His development made cost effective, long lasting bulbs that were commercially viable. Shortly thereafter it was discovered that filling the bulbs with an inert gas like nitrogen or argon would make the bulb brighter and reduce blackening of the envelope.

As you can tell, the old story of Edison inventing the light bulb is a drastic simplification.