And There Was Light

Development of light bulbs

Joseph Swan and Thomas Edison independently patent their carbon filament light bulbs in 1879. Joseph Swan was a British physicist and chemist. In 1850, he began working with carbonized paper filaments in an evacuated glass bulb. By 1860, he was able to demonstrate a working device but the lack of a good vacuum and an adequate supply of electricity resulted in a short lifetime for the bulb and an inefficient source of light. By the mid-1870s better pumps became available, and Swan returned to his experiments.

With the help of Charles Stearn, an expert on vacuum pumps, in 1878, Swan developed a method of processing that avoided the early bulb blackening. This received a British Patent in 1880. On 18 December 1878, a lamp using a slender carbon rod was shown at a meeting of the Newcastle Chemical Society. Swan gave a working demonstration at their meeting on 17 January 1879. It was also shown to 700 who attended a meeting of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne on 3 February 1879.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison began serious research into developing a practical incandescent lamp in 1878. Edison filed his first patent application for “Improvement In Electric Lights” on 14 October 1878. After many experiments, first with carbon in the early 1880s and then with platinum and other metals, in the end Edison returned to a carbon filament. The first successful test was on 22 October 1879, and lasted 13.5 hours.

Edison continued to improve this design and by 4 November 1879, filed for a US patent for an electric lamp using “a carbon filament or strip coiled and connected … to platina contact wires.” Although the patent described several ways of creating the carbon filament including using “cotton and linen thread, wood splints, papers coiled in various ways,” Edison and his team later discovered that a carbonized bamboo filament could last more than 1200 hours. In 1880, the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company steamer, Columbia, became the first application for Edison’s incandescent electric lamps.

Where next

These light bulbs quickly spread across the globe with the rollout of electric grids and new electric generation and brought safer, fume free light to billions of people. Now, incandescent lights are being replaced incredibly quickly with more efficient, safe and long-lasting LED bulbs. Read Street Light Revolution for more.

Which electric device do you think had a greater impact on the world than the light bulb?

Join the conversation on Facebook or Twitter using #energystory

Leave a Reply