In this post I’m musing over the history of light bulbs. How did our ancestors cope; what did they do with themselves after 4pm on a cold and dark winter’s night – actually I think we all know the answer to that, ahem. But seriously, how different would our lives, as we know them, be without artificial lighting.
For the sake of this article I’m assuming that all the other mod-cons I have are still in place i.e. day to day life is exactly the same… just no light bulbs or artificial means of seeing in the dark. I’m starting with a look at my day and how often I switch on lights and then move on to find out who really invented the light bulb; Swan or Edison and how their names became synonymous with each other.
What’s the real impact of the invention of light bulbs on my day?
It’s 6.15am and my alarm is going off. It’s the beginning of December so it’s pitch black in my bedroom. I reach over to turn on my bedside light (which just so happens to be a floor lamp with, you guessed it, a vintage filament light bulb). Oh wait… so if I don’t have a light bulb guess I’ll be stumbling blindly to the bathroom hoping not to stub my toes ‘en route’.
So it’s possible to shower in complete darkness. Next comes getting dressed – back to the pitch black bedroom. Here I meet with a few challenges, 95% of my clothes are black and I can’t find a matching pair of socks [note to self: pair socks up before putting away in the drawer].
Hair drying is fine – styling not so much. Obviously I’ll be giving the make-up a miss today too. So I manage to cobble together breakfast and I’m out the door and into my car. Dawning realisation… without light bulbs we don’t have car headlights. Walking the 12 miles to work isn’t an option, by the time I get there it’ll be tomorrow and I certainly couldn’t do it in these shoes.
You get the idea, I’m not going to go through every minute of my day suffice to say that I can see that if the light bulb hadn’t been invented the impact would be wide-reaching; much of how our lives are shaped now is made possible by artificial light.
In summary, my day would have to adjust to begin at sunrise and end at dusk – just imagine, in winter we’d all be in bed by 5pm and not get up until 8am!!! Speaking for myself, I have no idea how I would do everything I currently do in those few short hours. So who do we have to thank for extending our days and enabling us to get so much ‘done’?
Who really invented light bulbs?
Whilst this quick glimpse into impact of light bulb invention on my day is certainly food for thought. I’m interested to know exactly how the light bulb came about and who invented it.
Incandescent light bulbs
I’m talking here about the incandescent light bulb also known as the incandescent lamp or incandescent light globe. This is the iconic bulb that produces light from a wire filament that is heated (until it glows) by an electric current passing through it.
The filament is protected by a glass or quartz bulb that is either filed with inert gas or evacuated. You probably don’t need to know but… Argon is used to fill incandescent light bulbs to inhibit the evaporation of the tungsten filaments and increase bulb life (1).
Today’s standard incandescent light bulb has a medium sized E27 (Edison 27mm) male screw base and although the energy-efficient bulb has largely replaced these beautiful filament bulbs you can still find them being sold as vintage or Edison E27 light bulbs.
Thomas Alva Edison, to give him his full name, lived 11 February 1847 – 18 October 1931 and was a prolific American inventor and businessman. I’m actually amazed by how many things he invented and how much those inventions have shaped our world today.
Did you know that it was Edison who first devised a system to generate and distribute electricity to buildings (his first power station was in Manhattan, New York) – a significant influence on how we live today?
Although Thomas Edison is commonly attributed with the invention of the lightbulb, it appears from a bit of reading that it was in fact an English gentleman called Joseph Swan who first demonstrated the working prototype. It seems that Edison, based in America, worked on copies of Swan’s bulb trying to make them more efficient and he, rather cheekily we think, commissioned an advertising campaign claiming that he was the true inventor! However, Swan did ultimately agree that he could sell the lights in America whilst he retained the rights in the UK. Edison did however invent the first commercially viable light bulb.
Other inventors who had previously devised impractical i.e. noncommercial incandescent lamps included:
- Alessandro Volta
- Henry Woodward
- Mathew Evans
- Humphrey Davy
- James Bowman Lindsay
- Moses G Farmer
- William E Sawyer
- Heinrich Gobel
- Joseph Swan
Joseph Swan, or Sir Joseph Wilson Swan D.Sc.h.c, FRS (31 October 1828 – 27 May 1914) to give him his full title, was a British physicist and chemist famous for inventing the incandescent light bulb. In fact, his house was the first in the world to be lit by light bulb.
The original lightbulbs Swan worked on used carbonised paper filaments in an evacuated glass bulb – perhaps not surprisingly these were inefficient and had a short life. He later improved on this by using carbonised thread with a better vacuum – this reduced residual oxygen allowed the filament to glow without igniting and catching fire. Yikes!
He eventually started commercial manufacture of his incandescent light bulbs and in 1881 founded his own company, The Swan Electric Light Company.
Incidentally, did you know that Joseph Swan also patented bromide paper for use with black and white photography, and the process for making carbon prints?
Swan and Edison worked completely independently on the invention of light bulbs and electric lamps, although they were both aware of the other’s work.
Their names only became conjoined when their two competing companies joined together in 1883 to exploit both their inventions and the Edison and Swan United Electric Company, or Ediswan as it became known, was formed.
Why don’t we see traditional incandescent light bulbs much anymore?
These old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs have now been phased out across Europe. Most mainstream shops have sold out of their stock but you can still buy gorgeous vintage light bulbs from specialist online stockists.
Facts about light bulbs
5 things about light bulbs you probably don’t need to know…
- In 2012 the Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square, London had over 600 bulbs (2)
- The world’s oldest light bulb has been glowing for 108 years (3)
- In 2010 there was an estimated 4 billion Edison screw based light sockets in American homes (4)
- In the same year it was estimated that 200 million 100 watt incandescent bulbs were being sold annually in the U.S (4)
- JP Morgan includes the following interview question in its assessment centre to test understanding of variables and how they impact on formulation of your answer ‘How many lightbulbs are there in London?’ (5)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incandescent_light_bulb Incandescent Light Bulb
http://www.lightopedia.com/bulb-shapes-sizes Light Bulb Shapes and Sizes Reference Chart