Let there be light
The story of the incandescent bulbBy Michael G. Williams
Thomas Edison once remarked that he had never perfected an invention that didn’t serve the public. “I find out what the world needs,” he said, “then I proceed to invent.”
During the last quarter of the 19th century, the Wizard of Menlo Park and dozens of other inventors had their eyes trained on a new source of light—one that would require no fuss or maintenance.
Light by electricity promised a future far brighter than the existing means of gas and kerosene. The world was tiring of their dim yellow flicker; their headache-inducing fumes; and the constant chore of adjusting fixtures, trimming wicks, and wiping soot from tabletops and mantles.
Birth of a new age
But after 130 years, the tremendous benefits and convenience of electric light have faded to a mindless flip of a switch, rendering one of mankind’s greatest achievements invisible to our modern sensibilities. The birth of the lightbulb was the birth of a new age, a transformation that, today, we either fail to appreciate or forget about entirely.
Ernest Freeburg hopes that his new book The Age of Edison (The Penguin Press, 2013) will change this.
“A defining characteristic of 19th century Americans was the pride they took in being a nation of inventors,” says Freeberg, distinguished professor of humanities at the University of Tennessee. “Over 100 years later, this amazing invention—the lightbulb—remains part of our everyday lives, which is why I find it so striking that many people take it for granted. The story behind how we got here is truly incredible.”
If you think the triumph of electric light rests with Edison alone, think again. Before the incandescent bulb’s warm glow, there was the cold wash of Charles Brush’s arc light, a sharp stream of electricity ignited between two electrodes.
Brush marketed his lamps mainly as outdoor units powerful enough to light up large areas and miraculously turn night into day.
Shortly after the Brush Electric Company opened its doors in 1880, Scientific American reported the purchase of thousands of arc lights in major cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. Here public officials welcomed the invention as a light source in parks, railroad stations, factories, even the exteriors of stores, hotels, and churches.
An envious editor at the Los Angeles Times wrote, “The Electric Light: Los Angeles Wants and Must Have One.”
“Right off the bat, the adoption of electric light changed the way people lived,” says Freeberg. “They were able to work safely and efficiently, travel at night, and enjoy leisure time in the evening hours, all because of a new kind of light capable of illuminating more than a few feet.”
While Brush was busy lighting the outdoors, a host of inventors from around the world were struggling to brighten offices and parlors by way of an incandescent bulb. Yet they repeatedly encountered seemingly insurmountable obstacles: bulbs that consumed too much voltage or burned too hot or for too short a time.
The fragile filament
Ironically, the biggest challenge was the bulb’s smallest facet—a fragile filament that, when ignited, easily out-performed any gas or oil lamp in service.
“Before Edison, a number of people developed incandescent bulbs; none of them was practical,” notes Freeburg. “The central challenge for everyone, including Edison, was creating a filament that would burn long enough to be commercially viable.”
Through trial and error, Edison experimented with a range of materials such as bamboo, tungsten, platinum, and, eventually, settled on carbon, thus conquering the chief hurdle in the birth of the lightbulb as we know it.
From that point, it was a matter of business.
At first, Edison wired the homes of wealthy elites like J.P. Morgan. Soon thereafter, the tireless inventor manufactured dynamos (or generators) powerful enough to electrify six city blocks.
Those interested in “getting into the lighting business” could purchase the equipment from Edison and bring electric light to their neighbors for a fee. By the 1890s, these smaller outfits yielded to sweeping operations like General Electric and Westinghouse, which, in turn, resulted in safety regulations and a reliable, nationwide system of electricity.
“The advent of electric light was a technological revolution,” says Freeburg. “It changed medicine, photography, and entertainment. Because of electric light, we don’t have to go to bed when the sun goes down, and we can safely travel at any time: night or day, rain or shine.
“The places that we move in and out of are carefully lit in ways that influence our moods and communicate certain messages,” he adds. “Electric lighting possesses a sort of grammar that all of us read, and it started with people like Charles Brush and Thomas Edison.”