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Lighting Basics

The Light Bulb – A Short History

Ever wonder where the light bulb came from? The light bulb might be a common household item we take for granted today, but it is undoubtedly one of the most helpful and important inventions in the past few centuries. Looking back, during the early 1800s people only had candles and lamps to provide them with light. With the light bulb’s introduction, a very bright light source is available for a long time without having to light up another candle or change another wick.

Thomas Edison is widely recognized as the person who invented the light bulb. However, he only actually developed it to become more commercially practical; there have been other people before Edison who tried to develop it for widespread use. In fact, historians claim that there were 20 or more inventors who tried to create an incandescent light bulb before Edison’s version become widely known.

There are three reasons why Edison’s version for the light bulb outstrips the others. First, it used an efficient incandescent material. Second, it has a high vacuum. Finally, it had high resistance, which made energy distribution taken from a centralized supply economically viable.

The First Light Bulbs

During the early 1800’s, Humphry Davy created what should be considered as the first functioning light bulb. Davy experimented on electricity and how it could be used for practical purposes; he ended up inventing the electric battery. Using wire and some carbon, he connected one end of the wire to the battery and the other end to carbon. The experiment resulted in the carbon glowing, producing light. Davy’s invention was then called the Electric Arc lamp. The down side of the lamp was that the light did not last for too long and the light it produced was too bright.

After a few years, many inventors were successful in creating “light bulbs”. However, their inventions were not too commercially friendly. The closest invention that had a practical design was Warren de la Rue’s model. He designed a light bulb that had an enclosed coil filament made from platinum inside a vacuumed tube, which then housed passing electrical currents. Since platinum has a very high melting point, the light produced could last for a long time. However, the price of platinum made the design very expensive and impractical for mass production.

The closest successful designs that were commercialized were from Henry Woodward and his partner Mathew Evans. Both filed a patent on July 24, 1874 for their light bulb design. They produced lamps that varied in shapes and sizes, using carbon rods that were placed between electrodes inside glass cylinders that were filled with the gas nitrogen. However, Evans and Woodward’s attempt to mass-produce their light bulb model failed, which lead them to sell their patent.

Thomas Edison eventually bought the patent and the rest, as they say, is history.

Thomas Edison’s Light Bulb

he filed for his first patent application that was for the "Improvement in Electric Lights". He continued with experimenting and testing different kinds of materials for the metal filaments needed inside a bulb to give it light. By November or 1879, Edison filed another patent in the United States for electrical lamps that used "a carbon filament or strip coiled and connected to platina contact wires." Though the patent described many ways of making the carbon-based filament, including the use of linen and cotton thread, papers coiled and wood splints, it was only until a few months after Edison’s patent was approved that he and his co-workers discovered that carbonized bamboo filaments could last more than 1200 hours in use. 1,200 hours today may not be impressive, but back then, such as a lifespan was unheard of.

This discovery is the hallmark of the start of commercially-designed light bulbs. In 1880, Edison’s company called the Edison Electric Light Company, started marketing their new product to the masses.

Other Notable Events in the Light Bulb’s History

By the turn of the 1900s, more changes of the filaments being used in light bulbs were developed. Instead of carbon, tungsten was used for filaments in incandescent light bulbs. Edison was still the one who developed this change, but during the beginning of his experiments, he was unable to use tungsten because the machinery needed to create to fabricate it wire was unavailable at the time.

A decade later, researches like William David Coolidge improved the manufacturing process to produce longer lasting tungsten based filaments. In the 1920’s, frosted light bulbs became available. During this time, power beam light bulbs that were adjustable became available for headlamps on car and for neon lighting.

By the 30s, everyone saw the creation of little flashbulbs that were good for one-time use. This development revolutionize the photography industry, tanning florescent lamps where also developed during this time. The 40s and 50s gave way to “softer” lights; halogen and Quartz glass light bulbs also began to flood the market. By the 80s, low wattage bulbs were developed and by the 1990s, CFLs and other bulbs that have long life spans start becoming available in the market.

The Future of the Light bulb

Currently, more and more light bulb developers are looking for ways to create bulbs that are energy efficient and eco-friendly. Many countries have passed bills and laws that support energy efficiency and low power use, even encouraging local light bulb producers to invest more time, money and research on bulbs like LEDs. Indeed, the future is definitely bight and clean for light bulbs.