Light or Lite?
This week’s featured invention came down to a close call between two extremely important inventions: beer in a can or the incandescent light. It was a bit of a toss-up, but we will go with Thomas Edison and the incandescent light bulb. Contrary to popular belief, as with many of his ideas, Thomas Edison did not “invent” the light bulb. What Edison did was to create a better version of an existing idea, and one that could be commercially successful. So, in order to see how Edison designed his now famous light bulb, we need to go back and look at inventors before him that contributed steps along the way in its development.
First it is important to understand why the light bulb was needed. At first glance it seems obvious: the world had to shut down at night because there was no electricity, right? Not true. People and cities had developed methods of lighting that did not rely on electricity but were improvements over a simple candle. For instance, in the 1700s a major industry in the United States was whaling. Whales were not generally hunted for their meat. Instead, it was their blubber that was in demand. This blubber was then converted into whale oil, which became a fuel source for lamps. Whale oil was an extremely stable fuel, but the issue was getting it. Whaling was a dangerous industry and, worse, as whalers became better at their craft, whaling became more difficult due to species loss. Many species of whale reached near-extinction levels due to the demand for their blubber.
Fortunately for humanity, and the whales, by the end of the 1700s and early 1800s substitutes were found for whale oil. These included common sources such as wood and natural gas, but they also included more exotic methods of harnessing energy such as through wax or peat. Eventually, after oil had been discovered as an energy source, kerosene lamps became increasingly popular. As a result it became more and more common for cities to be illuminated, but the drawback was still the degree of difficulty in obtaining the fuels and keeping the lights going. Furthermore, electric lighting would prove to be safer than many of the fuels that were used at the time.
So, although there was not exactly a need for electric lighting, it was obvious that improvements could be made, just like had been done in the past. Here is where Edison came in. Again, Edison was not the first to attempt this. For instance, in 1875 two individuals from Canada, Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans, actually received a patent for a light bulb. Edison would eventually buy the patent from them. Another person, Sir Joseph Swan of England, experimented with light bulbs and came up with one that could burn for over thirteen hours. It was an improvement, but not good enough.
Edison was the next to step in. Between the years 1878 to 1880, Edison and his associates (after buying the patent from Woodward and Evans) worked on thousands of different theories for improving their design. After settling on a design, the next step was finding a filament that worked. Again, Edison tried literally thousands of materials (he said he tried over 6,000 plant filaments alone), until he began to theorize that carbonizing the material would make it last longer. Finally, after years of painstaking research, the carbonized cotton thread filament showed promise. This was enough to give Edison the patent for the incandescent light bulb (patent #223,898), which was awarded on January 27th, 1880. Although the creation of one light bulb was not enough to turn the tide against gas usage (older areas of some cities still use it, hence the areas known as “gaslight districts”), it showed enough potential to eventually become the dominant source of illumination in the 20th century.
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