Today, we go looking for the first electric lights.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Say "light bulb," and
Edison's name comes to mind -- Edison's alone. Yet
electric lighting is far older. It really got
rolling just after 1800 -- almost eighty years
before Edison's invention.
Two kinds of electric lamps competed through the
19th century. One was the incandescent lamp, whose
light is created by passing an electric current
through a filament. The other was the arc light,
created by an electric arc leaping the gap between
The electrochemist Humphry
Davy demonstrated lights of both kinds in the
early 1800s. At the age of only twenty-two, Davy
was made a lecturer at the new Royal Institution in
London. He was a dazzling speaker whose
lecture-demonstrations soon became major social
events in London for both women and men.
In an 1802 lecture he showed how we can cast light
by passing an electric current through a platinum
strip. In 1809 he demonstrated how to impose a
large voltage across the air gap between two carbon
electrodes to create a brilliant light.
Commercial arc-lighting followed three decades
later in England. For a long time, arc lighting was
more showy than practical. It was becoming really
viable about the time Edison created his system.
But as early as 1820 the French inventor de La Rue
made a successful incandescent lamp by putting an
expensive platinum coil in an evacuated glass tube.
In 1840 an English inventor named Grove used
similar lamps to light a whole theater. The
lighting was dim, and its cost ran to several
hundred pounds sterling per kilowatt-hour. Still,
this was a public use of incandescent lighting,
forty years ahead of Edison.
Many other incandescent lamps followed. In 1878
Joseph Swan made an evacuated carbon filament lamp.
He also managed to get patent protection before
Edison duplicated the feat.
Edison finally installed his complete lighting
system on the steamship Columbia in
1880. He created cheaper, longer-lasting bulbs than
anyone else. But he also provided the public with
an electrical supply system. He created a complete
user-ready lighting system. Of course Edison had to
get around Swan. To do that, he took Swan in as a
Edison's contribution to electric lighting wasn't
its invention, but its development. He tenaciously
took the idea all the way to the marketplace. And
we're left wondering why Edison gets the credit.
For one thing, he was his own spin doctor. He wove
his myth as he wove his machinery.
But he also wove the technology itself: complete
There is no single inventor of any great
technology. Ideas rise out of a whole community.
But people who can put full-blown systems together
are rare. And in that sense, maybe it is fair to
say that Edison invented the light bulb, after all.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds