Thomas Edison popularized the incandescent light bulb but he didn’t invent it. In fact, there were many other “inventors” of the light bulb who came before Edison. It turns out, that passing current through a filament to create incandescent light was the easy part. The more difficult task was finding a long-lasting, cost-effective design for light bulbs. The history of the light bulb’s “invention” is one of many inventors pursuing the same goal through a variety of different means but falling short because of technical and business problems. Edison gets credit because he had the right match of technical skill and business acumen to illuminate the world.
Sir Humphrey Davy
Davy created what is generally considered to be the first incandescent light in 1802 by passing electric current through a strip of platinum. In 1809, he created an arc lamp by connecting two wires to a battery and attaching a charcoal strip between the other ends of the wires. This was the first miner’s safety lamp, which could provide illumination even in the presence of flammable gas.
Warren De La Rue
A British astronomer and chemist, De La Rue created the first lightbulb in 1820 by passing an electric current through a platinum coil in a vacuum tube. Despite its effectiveness, the cost of the platinum made his invention impractical for commercial use.
James Bowman Lindsay
Lindsay is said to have demonstrated an electric lamp at a public meeting in Dundee, Scotland, in 1835. However, his claims are not well documented and he did not develop the device further. His innovation used powdered charcoal between two platinum wires contained in a vacuum bulb.
Frederic De Moleyns
In 1841, Englishman Frederic De Moleyns was granted the first patent for an incandescent bulb. He used powdered charcoal heated between two platinum wires and his idea was a success.
John Wellington Starr
In 1845, American John W. Starr acquired a British patent through his agent Edward Augustin King for an incandescent bulb that used carbon filaments.
Lodygin acquired a patent in Russia for the incandescent lightbulb in 1874. He later moved to the US and acquired patents for incandescent bulbs with different filaments. His lightbulb with a molybdenum filament was demonstrated at the World’s Fair in Paris in 1900.
Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans
In 1874, Woodward and Evans designed and patented an incandescent lightbulb in Canada. They attempted to commercialize their invention, but were unsuccessful, and eventually sold their patent to Edison.
Sawyer developed a lighting apparatus in 1877 and founded a company with Albon Man to produce incandescent lamps. He successfully defended his patents against the Edison company, and secured a contract with Westinghouse to use his apparatus to light the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
Lewis Howard Latimer
Latimer worked for another lighbulb pioneer, Hiram S. Maxim, and patented a carbon filament that enabled the light bulb to burn longer. Edison eventually purchased the patent and hired Latimer in 1884. He also created the threaded socket that allows a light bulb to fit into the fixture.
A controversial figure in the history of lighting, Goebel, who was originally from Germany but later moved to New York, claimed to have created working incandescent bulbs in the 1850s, prior to Edison’s inventions.
Swan patented his invention for the incandescent lightbulb in 1878 in England. By 1881 he had started The Swan Electric Lamp Company and began commercial production. Because they were developing similar patents around the same time, the Edison and Swan companies merged into the Edison and Swan United Electric Company. However, Edison eventually acquired all of Swan’s interest in the company, and Swan sold his patent rights to the Brush Electric Company in 1882.
Thomas Alva Edison
The lightbulbs created prior to Edison’s experiments tended to be expensive and short-lived. Edison’s insight was to create long-lasting bulbs in a vacuum that were commercially viable. Still, there were many court battles in the years immediately following the granting of his January 1880 patent and he formed a joint company with Joseph Swan, called Ediswan, to avoid a court battle with the British inventor. Edison’s electric lamp patent, #223898, issued January 27, 1880.
Although Edison’s light bulb became the first commercially viable electric lamp in the United States, the technology took decades to become widely used. In 1925, 45 years after Edison patented his light bulb, only 25% of the US population used electric lighting.
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