A Concise History of the Light Bulb

edison light bulb

The electric light bulb, one of the regular conveniences that most influences our lives, was not actually “invented” in the conventional sense in 1879 by Thomas Alva Edison, though he can be said to have invented the first commercially viable incandescent bulb. He was neither the 1st nor the only individual attempting to make an incandescent light bulb. Some historians say that there were over 20 inventors of the bulb before Edison’s version. Edison is often credited with the invention because his model was able to outstrip the earlier versions because of a combination of 3 factors: a higher vacuum than others were able to achieve, an effective incandescent material,  and a high resistance that made power distribution from a centralized source economically viable.

The Early Light Bulbs

In 1802, Humphry Davy developed the very first electrical light. He experimented with electricity and created an electrical battery. When Davy attached wires to his battery and a piece of carbon, the carbon glowed, producing heat and light. His invention was called the Electric Arc lamp. And although it generated light, it didn’t produce it for very long and was a lot intense for practical use.

Over the following seven decades, many other inventors also produced “light bulbs, ” but no designs emerged for commercial application. More notably, in 1840, English scientist Warren de la Rue confined a coiled platinum strand in a vacuum tube and passed an electrical current through it. The model was built upon the idea that the high melting point of platinum would make it possible for it to function at high temperatures and that the evacuated container would consist of lesser gas molecules to react with the platinum, boosting its longevity. An efficient design, the cost of the platinum made it impractical for commercial manufacturing.

In 1850 a British physicist called Joseph Swan developed a “light bulb” by confining a carbonized paper filament in an evacuated glass bulb. By 1860s he had a working prototype, however, the absence of a good vacuum and a sufficient supply of electric energy resulted in a light bulb whose lifespan was much too brief to be taken into consideration as a reliable producer of light. In the 1870’s much better vacuum pumps became available, and Swan continued experimentation on light bulbs. In 1878, he developed a longer lasting bulb using a treated cotton thread which also removed the problem of early blackening of the bulb.

On July 24, 1874, a Canadian patent was filed by a Toronto medical electrician named Henry Woodward and his associate Mathew Evans. They built their lamps with different shapes and sizes of carbon rods held between electrodes in cylindrical glass tubes full of nitrogen. Evans and Woodward tried to commercialize their bulb but were not successful. These individuals eventually sold their patent to Edison in 1879.

The Edison Light Bulb

In 1878, Edison commenced serious research into building a practical incandescent light, and on 14th October 1878, Edison submitted his first patent application for “Improvement In Electric Lights.” He continued to test several different types of materials for metal filaments to improve upon his original design and by 4th of November 1879, he filed another US patent for a lamp using “a carbon filament or strip coiled & connected … to platina contact wires.”

His patent described several ways of creating the carbon filament including using “wood splints, papers coiled in various forms, cotton and linen thread,” It was not until several months later after the patent was granted that Edison discovered that a carbonized bamboo filament could last over twelve hundred hours.

This discovery marked the starting point of commercially manufactured light bulbs and in 1880, Thomas Edison’s firm, Edison Electric Light Company began marketing the updated product.

Original Edison Light Bulb:

edison light bulb

The original carbon-filament bulb patented by Thomas Alwa Edison


Other Significant Dates:

1906 – The General Electric Company was the 1st to patent a technique of making tungsten filaments for use in incandescent light bulbs. Edison himself knew tungsten would eventually prove to be the ideal choice for filaments in incandescent light bulbs, however, in his time, the machinery needed to manufacture the wire in such fine form was not available.

1910 – William Coolidge of General Electric improved the procedure of manufacturing to create the longest lasting tungsten filaments.
1920s – The 1st frosted bulb is made and modifiable power beam bulbs for car headlamps, and neon lighting.
1930s – The thirties saw the development of small one-time flashbulbs for photography, as well as the fluorescent tanning lamp.
1940s – The 1st ‘soft light’ incandescent bulbs.
1950s – Quartz glass and halogen light bulb are manufactured
1980s – New low wattage metallic halides are produced
1990s – Long life bulbs and Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL) bulbs make their first appearance.

The Future of the Light Bulb?
Modern incandescent bulbs are not energy efficient; under 10% of the electric energy supplied to the lamp is turned into visible light. The remaining energy is lost as heat. These inefficient bulbs are still widely used today due to many advantages such as:

broad, inexpensive supply, simple incorporation into electric systems, adaptable for small systems, low voltage operation, for instance, in battery powered devices, wide sizes and shape availability

Legislation in many countries including the United States have mandated phasing out incandescent bulbs for more energy efficient options such as CFLs and LEDs, however, there has been some resistance to these policies owing to the low cost, the instant availability of light and easy availability of incandescent bulbs, and concerns of mercury contamination with CFLs.


Do check some of our latest LED Edison bulbs designed similar to the Edison’s light bulb. They look vintage, but have the advantage of LEDs over incandescent bulb. They save energy, last a lifetime and saves you money in the long run.

Source: GadgTecs – The latest science and technology news