In the 1860’s the lighting revolution was about to take a turn that would begin to make electric lighting an everyday convenience that, eventually, would become something taken for granted. The introduction of the incandescent light bulb brought about more than just convenient lighting. It increased the average length of the workday, which in turn made for more efficient business, changed the way homes and buildings were designed, started new businesses and new energy sources that would be necessary to provide the power. The advent of power producing plants and ways to transmit the power led to even more breakthroughs in such items as appliances and motors which would eventually power untold numbers of devices.
Even though the development of the light bulb is most often associated with Thomas Edison, like many inventions and developments, it can’t be credited to only one person. There were actually many people around the world working on the idea. In 1879 and again in 1880, Edison patented the light bulb and might well be the first to have started commercializing the light bulb. However, before that, other scientists and inventors spent many years experimenting with electric light bulbs. The filaments and the bulb atmosphere were toyed with a lot. All sorts of materials, from cotton infused or coated with different compounds, to metals and other materials were used for filaments. The bulb either had the air evacuated or was filled with different inert gasses which were used to help prevent the deterioration of the filament. As with most any new inventions or developments, the early bulbs were very expensive to produce, thus expensive to buy. They were also very short lived and very energy hungry.
Edison and his team of researchers were heavily focused on finding a material which would be optimal for the filament material. Their first test material was carbon and later platinum was tried but eventually they returned to carbon. The Edison team produced a bulb in October of 1879 that used a carbonized filament of uncoated cotton thread that lasted 14.5 hours. Their filament prototyping continued until they finally settled on one of which was able to last up to 1,200 hours and it became the standard for the Edison bulb for some ten years. Edison also created a much improved vacuum process for evacuating the bulb, and also developed the Edison screw base which is still the standard socket for light bulbs today.
It should be noted that two inventors, William Sawyer and Albon Man, together received a U. S. patent for the incandescent light prior to Edison. Joseph Swan also beat Edison to the punch with his development and patent for an incandescent light bulb in England. There were debates as to whether Edison’s patents infringed on the other patents, but Edison’s U.S. lighting company eventually merged with the Thomson-Houston Electric Company which was making bulbs under the Sawer-Man patent. This company eventually became General Electric. In England, Edison’s English lighting company eventually merged with Joseph Swan’s company in England and that company became known as Ediswan. Those brilliant moves by Edison ended any potential issues with patent infringement.
Despite other light bulb inventors and their patents, Edison made the largest contribution to electric lighting by moving beyond the light bulb with other developments that made the light bulb practical and thus a commercial success. In 1882 he demonstrated his lighting technology in London where he showed that electricity could be generated and transported through a series of wires and tubes, called conduits. His work on improving the generation and transmission of electricity led to him to the developing the first commercial power station. It was located in lower Manhattan and was dubbed the Pearl Street Station. Edison, needing a method of measuring customer usage, also developed the first electric meter. As Edison focused on lighting as a whole “system”, others were making improvements on the bulb itself.
Other inventors were intent on light bulb improvements and the filament was paid the most attention. In 1904 European inventors introduced tungsten filaments which greatly increased life and light intensity when compared to the carbon filament bulbs. By filling a bulb with an inert gas such as nitrogen, in 1913, Irving Langmuir was able to double the life of the light. Over the next 40 years the improvements in design and production reduced the cost and increased the efficiency in regard to life expectancy and light output. Still, by the 1950’s it had yet to be determined how more than the 10% of the energy the incandescent light used to create light could be improved upon - the other 90% of the energy was creating heat. During that period the focus in the lighting development arena was heading toward other solutions to improve upon the Edison bulb.
This blog is a multi-part writing which will touch on the evolution of artificial lighting and will be continued in the upcoming weeks. In the meantime, if you need help with your LED lighting projects, please feel free to call Polar Ray at 303-494-5773 and speak with a lighting consultant.